Not Such a Happy Day for Millions of Single Mothers

You can find more recent figures on single mothers (and single fathers) here.

An old post of mine on the plight of single mothers gets into my top-10 viewed list week after week. So Mother’s Day seems like a good time to check on how they’re doing.

One thing we know for sure is that there are more of them than there used to be. Much head-shaking — and finger-wagging — from the conservative family values types.

Yet far from all single mothers had their children without benefit of clergy. About 55% are separated, divorced or widowed, according to an update from Legal Momentum.

Still, more women are having children outside of marriage. Some are in committed same-sex relationships who can’t get married in the states they live in. Some are content to live in domestic partnerships with the men they love — at least, for the time being.

Many, I would guess, don’t see marriage as a smart economic move — at any rate, not marriage to the fathers of their children.

Some single mothers are surely doing fine — economically, at least. Juggling household and parental responsibilities with a full-time job is tough, even if income isn’t a problem.

And even if an employer provides generous paid sick and family leave. As of 2010, only 58% of private-sector employees had access to any paid sick leave at all. Whether they could use their leave to stay home with a sick child or thrash out a day care problem is unclear.

The bigger story, I think, is that a large percent of single mothers aren’t doing fine by any economic measure. In 2010, says Legal Momentum:

  • Two-fifths of all single-mother families were poor, according to the very low thresholds the Census Bureau uses.
  • The poverty rate for single-mother families was nearly three times greater than for the population as a whole — 42.4%, as compared to 15.1%.
  • At any given time, about two-thirds of single mothers were employed outside the home, but only two-fifths of them were employed full time, year round. A quarter were jobless the entire year.
  • The median average income for single-mother households was less than $25,000 — actually only $24,487, according to one of the Census Bureau’s many data tables.
  • A third of single mothers spent more than half their income for housing — the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s standard for a “severe housing cost burden.”
  • Not surprisingly then, three-quarters of homeless families were headed by single mothers.

There’s no simple explanation for these sorry figures.

Legal Momentum mentions delinquent child support payments. Only a third of single mothers received any child support in 2010, and for them, the average was $300 a month.

A number of other factors Legal Momentum cites are work-related. They include scarce employment — still the case now — and occupational segregation in low-wage “women’s work,” e.g., home health aides, restaurant wait staff.

Closely related are our very low minimum wage rates, even in the 18 states that have set rates higher than the federal minimum — still a mere $7.25 an hour and losing purchasing power all the time.

Another work-related factor is unaffordable child care, which can eat up a huge chunk of income — more than many single mothers can earn.

Still another factor is our unemployment insurance system, which tends to exclude people who work part-time or intermittently, especially in low-wage jobs.

All these factors reflect public policies — some more directly than others.

Pride of place, for Legal Momentum, is our “restrictive and stingy welfare program,” a.k.a. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

I’ve frequently vented about problems built into the TANF law and regulations, often drawing on briefs Legal Momentum has issued.

The single-mother poverty brief I’m using here captures one aspect of ending welfare as we knew it. While about two-thirds of single mothers received food stamps in 2010, barely more than a quarter (27.1%) received cash assistance from TANF.

The cash left them and their children desperately poor. Maximum benefits for a family of three were below 30% of the federal poverty line in all but eight states — and above 50% in none.

About half of all mothers today will spend at least some time as the sole custodial parent. If today is typical, nearly a quarter of all mothers are in this situation.

We could make a happier Mother’s Days for millions of them, if the political will were there.

No further comment necessary, I trust.

5 Responses to Not Such a Happy Day for Millions of Single Mothers

  1. Michael Dahl says:

    Great post, Kathryn. But no comment necessary … this post is worthy of a long conversation. Here’s my quick addition:

    While underemployment and long-term unemployment are probably bigger issues, it’s worth noting the difference between unemployment insurance and TANF. I once heard a presentation about the differences that really shed light on a major injustice.

    If you get laid off from a job, you’ll likely get unemployment insurance. If you have to quit a job (i.e. because you have a child to take care of), you don’t … it’s possible you’ll get TANF (if you have kids).

    Unemployment insurance is used primarily by white men; TANF has a disproportionate number of minority, single moms.

    Unemployment insurance is seen as a proper safety net to help someone find their next job while keeping the economy going. TANF is stigmatized and it’s beneficiaries are scorned.

    Those on unemployment have relatively few hoops to jump through to get weekly benefits that while not great, are often okay. TANF recipients are tracked, penalized, and are still receiving the same level of benefits as they did in the 80s.

    Something is terribly wrong here!

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    I’m with you 150% on the TANF part. Not altogether on the unemployment insurance part, especially for low-income people.

    States have rules that limit eligibility. Someone who loses a job has to have earned a specified minimum within a so-called base period. This is generally the last four quarters before the termination, though I believe some states still count four quarters, but not the last. One way or the other, low-wage workers who’ve had part-time jobs or who’ve worked intermittently may not qualify.

    Some states also don’t consider a worker “ready, willing and able to work” unless s/he would accept a full-time job. Another disqualification for jobless workers who can’t put in 40 hours a week.

    And then there’s the matter of people who are technically self-employed. Many of them are contractors who work for firms where they used to be regular employees. They got laid off and rehired as independents because the firms then didn’t have to pay benefits. Others are people who get work through temporary agencies.

    When these so-called nontraditional workers get cut off, they don’t qualify for UI benefits.

    During a recession, an unusually high percentage of jobless workers can collect unemployment benefits. But before the recession that’s technically over now, percents hovered in the mid-30s range.

    Still, the basic point you make is absolutely true, Michael. UI benefits are more generous, while they last. Getting them is pretty straightforward. And there’s no stigma attached.

    I’ve often wondered what we might do to rehabilitate the image of “welfare”—and thus poor parents enrolled in TANF. I doubt we’ll get a better, fairer program until we do.

  3. Michael Dahl says:

    Kathryn:

    Thanks for providing important details on how unemployment insurance is not as great for low wage workers. We are on the same page. I just wanted to make the point that UI is, as you said, pretty straightforward and has less of stigma.

    Great work! I look forward to reading more.

    Michael

  4. Gina T says:

    I DIDNT HAVE CUSTODY OF MY CHILDREN FROM LAST AUGUST TO DECEMBER DUE TO BEING HOMELESS. I WENT AND GOT HELP FROM DISABILITY LIFE LINE HERE IN WA STATE.THAT ONLY LAST 1 MONTH AS THEY WERE NO LONGER GOING TO BE USING THAT PROGRAM. THEY DID OFFER ANOTHER PROGRAM (F.E.N.) FOR THE MAIN ESSENTIAL NEEDS SUCH AS A HOUSING COST (300 I RECIEVED A MONTH) PERSONAL HYGIENE, TOILETRY AND EVEN 10 BUS TICKETS. THAT REALLY WAS A BLESSING. SO THE PROGRAM REALLY DID HELP ME STAY FROM BECOMMING HOMELESS AGAIN AND GAVE ME A WAY TO GET PLACES FOR MY JOB SEARCH. THAT WAS GOOD ENOUGH IN THE COURTS EYES, AND MY KID’S WERE HOME ON DEC23RD.HERE’S THE PART THAT REALLY BOTHERS ME; MY KIDS WERE BACK, WE WERE A FAMILY AGAIN. STILL SEARCHING FOR A JOB BUT PROGRESS WAS BEING MADE. THE 1ST WK OF JANUARY I WENT INTO THE F.E.N. PROGRAM OFFICE. BASICALLY I WAS INFORMED THAT BECAUSE I’M NO LONGER A SINGLE PERSON W/OUT DEPENDENTS AND NOW I HAVE DEPENDENTS, I NO LONGER QUALIFY FOR THERE ASSISTANCE. THAT LEFT US WITH NO RENT..HOMELESS NOW AGAIN.

  5. […] disparities rooted in race and gender discrimination and the problems single parents (usually mothers) face trying to support themselves and their […]

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