How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation?

My posting on the plight of single-mother families prompted commenter Glenda to ask a really good question: “Do you have any data … on our total public costs to continue to support single mothers living in poverty rather than investing in helping them to get educated and become self-sufficient?”

I replied as best I could at the time. But I’ve decided the issue is worth a deeper dive, especially because the whole matter of government spending on programs for low-income people has become a major focus in many states — and, of course, on Capitol Hill as well.

The short answer to the question is that I don’t know of any study that has compared the relative costs of the benefits that, to a limited extent, sustain poor single mothers with the costs that would be involved in enabling them to fully support themselves and their children.

There are, however, some studies that can help us look at one side of the cost question.

For example, we have some data on what the federal government spends to help support single-mother families. Two sociology professors report that, in 2006, federal expenditures due to “father absence” totaled $98.9 billion. A quick look at the expenditures shows that “father absence” is another way of characterizing single-mother families.

As the authors note, the estimate is actually a fraction of total costs. It doesn’t include costs borne by state and local governments, e.g., what states spend on federal-state “partnership” programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Medicaid and subsidized child care.

Nor do the estimates include the long-term indirect costs due to the negative effects of growing up fatherless. Many, though probably not all of these are the same as the long-term costs of child poverty.

A team of economists produced a report on these in 2008. Basically, they reviewed the research on the relationships between child poverty and three major cost areas — earnings, propensity to crime and quality of health in adulthood. They put these together with estimated costs of the latter two and projected all the figures out over the total number of poor children in the U.S.

Bottom line was an estimated $500 billion per year cost — nearly 4% of what was then our entire gross domestic product, i.e., the total value of all the goods and services produced in the U.S. This too was explicitly a conservative estimate.

Though the team didn’t assess the cost-effectiveness of specific anti-poverty policies, they did conclude that “investing significant resources in poverty reduction might be more cost-effective over time than [they] previously thought.”

Note the use of the term “investing” here. The same word Glenda used. The thought behind the word seems to me clear and appropriate. Pay some money now because you expect it will yield returns beyond what you spent.

In this case, you put funds into programs that will lift as many children as possible out of poverty — thus, in the long run, increase productivity and reduce public costs.

I flag the word because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) preemptively trashed on the President’s use of it in his recent State of the Union address. “With all due respect to our Democratic friends, any time they want to spend, they call it investment,” he told the anchor on Sunday Fox News.

Seems to me that it’s possible to distinguish smart investments from spending that won’t be offset by benefits to our economy and the well-being of the American people. I should think that policymakers of all stripes would concur on some of the basics.

A review of the spending cuts proposed by the Republican-dominated House Appropriations Committee suggests otherwise. One seems especially relevant here — the large cut in funding for state and local employment training programs. This, along with the other major cuts, passed in the House last Saturday.

Under the just-passed bill, total funding for these programs would be just 53% of what Congress approved for Fiscal Year 2010 — and again as part of the current continuing resolution. It would be just 49% of the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2011 because he requested an increase.

So we would “save” about $1.4 billion or $1.6 billion, depending on which measure you want to use. (The former is more accurate, though Republicans understandably prefer the latter.)

The National Skills Coalition says we should factor in appropriations customarily made in advance of the new fiscal year. These would bring the total cut to somewhat over $2.97 billion. Some smaller, more narrowly-targeted workforce development programs would be totally defunded — or nearly so.

Consider what McConnell favors instead of these investments — a permanent extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts. This, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, would cost an estimated $3,402 billion for the first 10 years.

The permanent extension bill just proposed by self-proclaimed deficit hawks Mike Pence (R-IN) and Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) would presumably cost even more because it would wholly eliminate the estate tax.

You can pay for a lot of job training and education for all those billions — and have plenty left over for other endangered programs that would also help single moms become fully self-sufficient.


10 Responses to How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation?

  1. Obviously single mothers with a lack of education can become a finacial burden on society. As can any group with a lack of education. Being a single mother that wants to improve her situation by going back to school and is willing to work hard to make it happen should be offered help. There’s Grants and Scholarships available to single moms that don’t need to be paid back as well as Student loans.

  2. Glenda says:

    Thank you so much for coming back to this topic. I am trying to build the business case for intensive investment in single mother families for the time it takes to help the mother complete a degree and start a living wage job. I have research showing that less than 5% of single mothers who enroll in college will ever complete a degree and it will take on average 10 years. (There’s another cost to add to our public expense…helping pay for some education that never results in a degree…federally via Pell grants and Perkins funding.) These women who are motivated, but who face so many barriers to completion, are an opportunity for us. The trend toward resource intensive permanent supportive housing for chronically homeless justifies such significant investment for that population, and it is very expensive (estimated in my community in Austin,TX at more than $20k/year for annual housing subsidies and services costs). I would like to see the same understanding of the cost benefit of intensive investment in these single mother families that could actually become self-sufficient with a shorter-term investment. Of course, for single mother families, we have to add the cost of childcare. But, as with the homeless, in many cases we are paying a public cost to maintain these families in poverty anyway. But the costs are hidden and scattered in smaller “chunks” in various budgets rather than brought together and focused on moving the families out of poverty. I would appreciate anything else you turn up on this topic! Thank you.

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    And I would be very interested in anything else you learn, Glenda.

    One thought for you: Some of the poor single mothers you’re focusing on are likely to be enrolled in TANF. That would mean they’re already supposed to be participating in work-related activities. Also that they may well be getting subsidized child care.

    Unfortunately, current TANF regulations limit their opportunities to obtain a college degree—mainly because they put a premium on short-jot “work first” training that get parents off the TANF rolls, even if it doesn’t keep them off.

    This could be changed when TANF is reauthorized. In the meantime, local agencies can shift their emphasis toward postsecondary education. In the District of Columbia, where I live, the DC Council recently passed a law to pave the way for this. You can read about it at

    In short, you might consider TANF as one framework for the sort of coordinated intensive investment you’re working on.

  4. Autum Rose says:

    This is so great that there finally drawing some attention to the poverty in this nation not only are there poverty ridden single mothers but the rest of the nation also. Here is an article of a single mother who is faced with two children on her own because their father went to jail read on and let me know what you think my friend wrote this

  5. david k says:

    i get emails, talking about how single moms with eight kids get 150k per year to support them… this sounds ridiculous – what do they receive? and is it true that some have as many kids as possible, cuz that is more government money provided to them? what are the trends? is there any statistical information on this? thank you! for listening, and any good that becomes of your efforts! all the best! dk

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    Whoever is sending you those e-mails is either misinformed or deliberately misinforming you, dk.

    I assume the money they’re referring to is cash assistance provided under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. States decide how much those benefits will be so it would be hard to come up with accurate comprehensive numbers.

    Here’s what we do know. In July 2010, the median average benefit for a parent with two children was $432 a month. That translates to $5,184 a year or 28% of the federal poverty line. Benefits are generally higher for families with more children, but it’s inconceivable that they would ever be 29 times higher than the three-family benefit. That’s what it would take to get to $150,000 per year.

    The allegation that poor women have more children to get more government money is a very old slur. We have to credit women with more common sense. Extra TANF benefits would fall far short of the costs of raising the additional children. And, in most cases, they would be short-lived since virtually all states impose a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. Not only that, but some states deny benefits to children born after mothers enroll in TANF.

    You can find out more about TANF benefits in your state at

    Hope this helps. And thanks for asking.

  7. Lynn says:

    I’m a single mom of four in California and all I received while on welfare was $680 worth of food stamps, and MediCal. There is nothing great about being on Welfare and it’s degrading. Women are treated like criminals for getting the assistance, and we are the ones trying to be responsible and raise our family. It makes no sense why women are constantly under attack. What about the deadbeat fathers? Where are the laws and protections from predators who ruin people’s lives and dreams? What about the broken hearts left behind? What about the support not just financially, but emotionally? Addicts and criminals receive more help and assistance than single parents. Addicts can even collect social security. Their single, solo people, who are self sabotaging and are supported in every way, no one says anything about them, and people even offer them jobs at the meetings or through networking.

    As a single parent I struggle every day and there is no support for me or my family, except welfare. And that is emotionally damaging, people are incredibly mean and rude to us, as if we are criminals and rejects of society. No one has a crystal ball, and somewhere no matter who you are there are obstacles in one’s life. People don’t chose to be single parents, there is no control over relationships or unforeseen circumstances in life. Where’s the compassion?

    If society wasn’t always importing cheap labor, mothers could still find adequate employment and be self-supporting, but with todays economy it makes it incredibly difficult. People are being forced to pay for an education that has no guarantees, and it really isn’t even necessary unless one plans on becoming a surgeon, or something major. But seriously women were doing well in office positions without having degrees for centuries. And if society would hire within there communities and give mothers an opportunity to work, it would help matters, but mothers are discriminated against daily.
    I learned that my city employs 15% of it’s residents, the other 85% reside outside of the city. It’s ridiculous how things are today, nothing makes sense!

    It’s all about greed and corruption, people are so materialistic it’s ruining this country. People need to go back to the old ways, stop importing people, and help your neighbors, be a community. And for goodness sakes get rid of the corrupt politicians. We don’t even know if President Obama is a US born citizen. What a joke!

  8. Kathryn Baer says:

    What you say about the way you and other women who have recourse to welfare programs confirms other stories I have read. I can understand how angry and frustrated you are. I would be too. And I am on your behalf.

    However, some of what you say about the reasons you and other single mothers struggle bothers me—specifically, the blame you put on immigrants. And what you say about our President is just plain wrong.

  9. […] you wouldn't have a situation where single motherhood costs more than 500 BILLION dollars: How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation? | Poverty & Policy We live in an age when contraception is so widespread that every place in USA (including Nevada […]

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