Surprising and Other Facts About Single Mothers and Fathers

September 9, 2013

At least half of today’s children will probably spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family. But we’re seemingly still ignorant about who the parents are and the challenges they face.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of rhetoric, of course — and a considerable amount of blame-casting.

But facts are in short supply when policymakers and other opinion-leaders turn their attention to single-parent issues — or more precisely, single-mother issues, since we rarely hear about single dads who’ve taken on the responsibility of raising their kids.

Tim Casey at Legal Momentum seeks to remedy this with a “snapshot” of single parenthood in the U.S. — the first of his annual fact sheets that deals with single parents, rather than single mothers only.

Here’s a summary of what we learn — highly selective and far less data-packed than what Casey has pulled together from the Census Bureau’s latest detailed tables and other sources.

Most single parents, i.e., those with kids in the house, are single mothers — 79% of the total last year. No surprise here.

More surprising perhaps, a majority of single parents were formerly married or still married, but separated from their spouses. Only 44% of children in single-parent families lived with a parent who’d always been single.

Also surprising, I think, is the fact that most single parents have no more than two children — and more than half (56%) only one child. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Children in single-parent families are far more likely to be living in poverty than children in two-parent families. In 2011, they accounted for 53% of all poor children.

Looked at another way, their poverty rate was more than triple the rate for children in two-parent families — 42%, as compared to 13%.

Part of the explanation for this, of course, is that the family has only one breadwinner — and apparently in many cases, little or nothing in child support.

Those breadwinners weren’t faring all that well. Just 54% were employed full-time and another 13% part-time when the 2012 census was taken. By contrast, 85% of fathers and 48% of mothers in two-parent families had full-time jobs.

Some of the working parents earned more than enough to support themselves and their kids. I suppose we all know examples. Perhaps some of you are examples.

Yet single parents are much more likely than other workers to be stuck in low-wage jobs. According to a study Casey cites, 34% of single mothers were both low-wage and low-income* in 2009.

We see the results in more current figures. In 2011, for example, the median annual income for single-mother families was $25,353 — only 32% of the median for two-parent families.

This means that the median for single mothers was well below 200% of the federal poverty line — a common definition of low-income.

The median for single fathers was $12,814, but still only 48% of the median for two-parent families.

We shouldn’t be surprised then to learn that 34% of single-parent families experienced food insecurity, i.e., didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Or altogether surprised that they were more than 80% of all homeless families in shelters in 2010.

And, alas, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that only 11% of single-parent families received cash assistance last year — yet another indicator of what “welfare reform” has done to the safety net.

In an earlier study, Casey and a co-researcher compared the status of single parents in the U.S. with the status of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

They found that single parents here have one of the highest — if not the highest — employment rate, but also the highest relative poverty rate, i.e., incomes below 50% of the country’s median.

One reason is their concentration in low-wage jobs — and what seems to be pay discrimination. Another is our relatively small investment in affordable child care and free education for very young children.

Still another is our paltry income support programs, e.g., our lack of a national paid leave mandate or a monthly cash benefit specifically to help with the costs of raising children.

And then there’s our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Even when combined with SNAP (the food stamp program), it provides, by far and away, the least assistance, as measured by percent of median income.

We purport to be all far families and the well-being of our nation’s children. But our policies say otherwise.

We don’t, I think, need more enlightened policies specifically for single parents. But we do need policies that recognize the realities of family life today, including the fact that a lot of them have — or will have — only one parent present.

* Low-wage here means less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for the state. Low-income, as often, is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.

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Not Such a Happy Day for Millions of Single Mothers

May 12, 2012

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.


TANF Turns Fifteen

August 22, 2011

Fifteen years ago today, President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — the bill that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

He’d promised to end welfare as we knew it. And, with a stroke of the pen, he did.

Cash assistance would henceforward be time-limited — a five-year lifetime maximum, with some limited, optional exceptions. None for program “graduates” who later suffered setbacks.

The federal government would pay states a fixed amount, based on what they were spending under the program TANF replaced. But they’d get bonus rewards for “decrease[s] in illegitimacy.”

States would have a good bit of flexibility, but they’d have to construct programs that, as the bill’s name implies, promoted personal responsibility and provided work opportunity, i.e., got recipients off the rolls and into jobs.

Big focus on personal responsibility — not be be confused with responsible personal choices.

The PRWORA includes, among other things, detailed work activity requirements, beefed-up child support enforcement, a related benefits cut for single parents who didn’t cooperate, a mandatory program component to reduce the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, especially among teenagers, and some extra requirements for teens who had babies anyway.

The legislation was controversial from the get-go. Clinton reportedly wasn’t altogether happy with it, but went along because he’d already vetoed two more extreme Republican alternatives.

Peter Edelman resigned from a high-level position in the Health and Human Services Department because, as he later explained, the bill wasn’t welfare reform at all.

It wouldn’t promote work effectively. It would “hurt millions of poor children.” And it would deny federally-funded assistance to “hundreds of thousands of immigrants” who were legally authorized to live here — children included.

Similar views from other prominent poverty experts, including Senator Daniel Moynihan, who called the bill “the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction.”

Needless to say, conservatives thought it was quite a fine thing. And they generally still do, though an upcoming hearing suggests that some Republican House members want to further tighten up on those work requirements.

I’ve put in my two cents on a number of occasions. Basically, I’m persuaded by the substantial body of research showing that the “success” the Republicans tout has little or nothing to do with enabling TANF recipients to find — and keep — living wage jobs.

Edelman and Barbara Ehrenreich, best known for her classic Nickled and Dimed, sum up the evidence well.

Legal Momentum offers an even broader point-by-point indictment in its review of what’s happened to poor women and children in the 15 years since “welfare reform” began shredding the safety net.

What I think we need to understand is that the defects don’t reflect poor implementation. They’re an outgrowth of why welfare was “reformed” to begin with.

I recall TANF’s pre-history well, from my husband’s days in the Carter administration’s social policy planning office. The big deal then, as it was under Clinton, was to put a curb on federal welfare spending — especially support for single mothers.

By this measure, TANF has succeeded.

Congress has consistently level-funded the program, notwithstanding rising living and program operations costs and the growing number of families in need. At the same time, it’s allowed states to use unspent TANF funds for other, more politically-popular programs.

States have responded by adopting policies and condoning — if not actually encouraging — practices that minimize their caseloads.

The end result, says Ehrenreich, in a scathing review of our poverty policies, is that some recipients refer to TANF as “Torture and Abuse of Needy Families.”

TANF will expire at the end of September unless Congress reauthorizes it or, as it did last year, passes a short-term extension. The latter seems more likely, given the other preoccupations — and hyper-partisan battles — on Capitol Hill.

But sooner or later, the White House and Congress will turn their attention to reauthorization.

One would hope that they’d reform welfare reform to provide a genuine safety net for parents who can’t support themselves and their children, plus education, training, child care and whatever else those who can work need to embark on career paths that will lead them out of poverty.

But, as Legal Momentum observes, “Congress could also consider proposals that would take TANF an even less effective safety net.” Might even pass some of them in one of those bad compromises that gave us the program we have today.

In the meantime, watch out for what happens to TANF when Congress gets busy on the spending cuts required under the new debt ceiling/deficit reduction deal.


Harder Times For Single Mothers And Their Children

January 29, 2011

I’ve got a more recent post on this issue, with new figures from Legal Momentum and more on factors that help explain them. You can find it here. Even more recent figures and additional factors are here.

Single-mother families are worse off than any other type of household by just about any measure you can imagine. And their bad situation has gotten worse since the recession set in.

This we learn in detail from a new report by Legal Momentum, tellingly entitled Single Mothers Since 2000: Falling Further.

Here’s some of what the report tells us about the one in four U.S. families headed by a single mother, supplemented a bit by what I’ve found elsewhere.

In 2009:

  • The median average income for all single-mother families was just $25,172 — down by more than $2,000 since 2000. The median average income for married couples with children was three times greater and, for the relatively few single-father families, nearly one and a half times greater.
  • Well over a third (38.5%) of single-mother families lived below the poverty threshold. This is more than four and a half times the rate for married couples with children and also considerably higher than the rate for single-father families.
  • About half the single-mother families below the poverty threshold were in “extreme poverty,” i.e., had incomes below 50% of the threshold.
  • Women were a large majority (79.6%) of the adults with children who were in emergency shelters.
  • About 20% of single-mother families were living doubled up with friends or relatives — often a precursor to literal homelessness.
  • Though a high percentage of single-mother families received food stamps, 36.6% of them experienced food insecurity, i.e., at least sometimes didn’t have the resource for everyone to have enough food.

To some extent, these dismal stats reflect the job losses and cutbacks in 2009. But other figures indicate they’re not solely results of the Great Recession. Even in 2000, when jobs were plentiful, only 76% of single mothers were employed in an average month — and not, I infer, necessarily full time.

As Legal Momentum shows, many single mothers who want to work face two major related challenges — high child care costs and low wages. As proof, it cites the results of a recent state-by-state study by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

NACCRRA found that the average cost for an infant care center ranged from 26.3% to 26.9% of the median income for single-mother families. With a second preschool child in care, the average cost was less than half of their median income in only four states and more than 70% in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

Subsidized child care would obviously help many single mothers out of poverty. Yet, as a National Women’s Law Center director recently testified, the major federal child care and early education programs reach only a fraction of those in need — and that’s with the increases that were part of the economic recovery act.

President Obama proposed $2 billion to extend these through the current fiscal year, thus providing for about 300,000 children and their low-income parents. You can be pretty damn certain Congress won’t go along.

What about the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program? Surely the 3.8 million single-mother families below the poverty threshold are needy. And TANF is often a source of subsidized child care too.

According to Legal Momentum, just 10% of single-mother families received TANF benefits in 2010. This continues a long downward slide dating back to “welfare reform” and largely attributable to a combination of the policies and inadequate federal funding.

The poor single-mother families who did get TANF benefits received far less than the minimum they’d need to stave off hardship. As another Legal Momentum report tells us, in mid-July 2008,  the median monthly benefit for a family of three was $426 and far below the federal poverty line even in states that paid more.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that three states cut TANF benefits in 2009, despite temporary infusions from the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund. Others, it says, may consider cuts to balance their Fiscal Year 2012 budgets. The District, as we know, is already engaged in its own forms of benefits trimming.

Though a small percentage of single-mother families are on TANF, they represent more than 90% of all TANF families.

Legal Momentum has done an important service in highlighting their economic distress — and the distress of all those families who’ve been kept out or pushed out of the TANF program.

But, as it notes, those of us who care will face “daunting challenges,” especially in the new Congress. It’s referring here to securing better policies and more funding.

Sad to say, we may need to expend all the resources we can muster just to protect the existing programs single-mother families need from sheer devastation.


Poor Families Worse Off Under Welfare Reform

September 2, 2009

I wrote awhile ago about a range of problems with TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). A new report by Legal Momentum puts the spotlight on one of them–the program’s egregious failure to provide poor families with enough for even their most basic daily needs.

This in itself is no news to anyone who’s been following the issue. But Legal Momentum’s state-by-state figures are new–and, to my mind, shocking.

Here in the District, the City Council recently decided, once again, to eliminate a small benefits increase for TANF families. So let’s see what the report tells us about how things stood for a D.C. TANF family of three, as of July 2008.

  • The family’s benefits were $428 per month–just $2 more than the median state benefit.
  • They were 29% of the federal poverty line–the same as the state median.
  • Combined with food stamps, the benefits still left the family at just 56% of the FPL–a lower percentage than in 21 states.
  • The real value of the benefits* was 23% less than when welfare reform was passed–1% less than the state median loss.

In short, D.C. families that depend on TANF have nowhere near what they need to stave off acute hardships. And they’re fairly representative of TANF families throughout the country.

For Legal Momentum, the solution is to reform TANF when it’s reauthorized next year so that states are required to provide benefits “at least sufficient to raise family income to the official poverty line.”

This, of course, would be a whole lot better than what we’ve got now. But it wouldn’t give TANF families enough to live on. Consider that, if the requirement were in place now, our D.C. family of three would be entitled to about $1,526 per month–or about 29% of the Economic Policy Institute’s basic budget for a parent and two children in the Washington metro area.

Still, it’s probably as much as–if not more than–we can get Congress to consider. Benefits that would provide poor families with enough for a reasonably decent, safe, healthful standard of living would require a fundamental change in our social values.

And the ongoing disintegration of health care reform shows that we’re nowhere near ready for that.

*  Real value compares July 2008 and July 2006 benefits as percentages of the applicable FPL.


TANF Cuts Holes In the Safety Net

July 22, 2009

Back in 1996, then-President Clinton and the Republican Congress agreed to “end welfare as we know it.” And, indeed, they did.

The old welfare program–Aid to Families with Dependent Children–guaranteed benefits to all families whose resources were below state-determined eligibility levels. The replacement–Temporary Assistance for Needy Families–set a maximum lifetime participation of five years and generally linked receipt of benefits to participation in work-related activities.

States receive their federal TANF funds in a block grant. Within certain limits, they can establish their own eligibility standards, set their own benefit levels and otherwise administer the program as they see fit.

A recent report by Legal Momentum documents the results:

  • Since 1996, the number of welfare recipients has decreased by almost two-thirds, mainly due to less participation by poor single women with children.
  • The percentage of poor children receiving welfare dropped by 62% in 1995 to 24% in 2007.
  • In 2004, more than 1.7 million single-mother families had annual incomes–benefits and earnings combined–of less than $3,000.

The last figure here points to a serious problem with benefit levels. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2008 benefits were less than 50% of the federal poverty line in all but one state and less than 25% of the FPL in 20 states.

Both the Legal Momentum report and a 2006 review of TANF by CBPP identify a range of problems underlying the low participation rates. They include:

  • The lifetime limit, which applies even to beneficiaries who are trying to find jobs or have serious barriers to employment, e.g., mental and physical health problems. (States can waive this limit for 20% of cases, but beyond that have to foot the whole bill.)
  • Incentives to reduce caseloads. These include a caseload reduction credit that allows states to avoid penalties for failing to meet their work participation quotas and the fact that states are allowed to use unspent TANF funds for other programs.
  • Various practices that control the caseload, e.g., intake procedures that deter participation, case closures unrelated to loss of eligibility.
  • Full family sanctions, which terminate assistance to an entire family when the adult(s) don’t comply with work activity requirements.

And then there’s the whole matter of work-related activities. Current rules require that half a state’s TANF recipients be actively engaged in preparing for work, looking for work or actually working for at least 30 hours per month. (Hours can be lower for a single parent with a very young child. Both the quota and hours are higher for two-parent families.)

But what counts as work preparation is highly restrictive. For example:

  • “Job search and readiness” activities are limited to six weeks per year. Substance abuse and mental health treatment and rehabilitative services count as activities of this sort.
  • Enrollment in vocational training is limited to 12 months and can’t include participation in a program leading to a four-year or advanced degree.
  • Only 30% of recipients can be participating in vocational training at any time–unless, of course, they’re doing it in addition to their officially-sanctioned work-related activities.
  • Study time for permissible training doesn’t count as a work-related activity.
  • Participation in adult education and/or ESL courses counts only if related to a specific occupation or job. Homework time for these courses doesn’t count unless supervised.

No wonder that TANF “graduates” generally don’t achieve ongoing employment at wages sufficient to lift them out of poverty. The figures are, to my mind, truly damning. For example:

  • A fairly recent three-city study found that only 26% of “caregivers” who left TANF were working and that their wages averaged $7.44 per hour.
  • According to a soon-to-be-published study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and So Others Might Eat, only 45% of D.C. TANF recipients who got a job were still working six months later and at an average wage of $9.00 per hour.

Bottom line is that TANF should provide a safety net for poor families and a pathway out of poverty. And it doesn’t do either nearly as well as it should.

Legal Momentum has produced an agenda for reforming TANF when it’s reauthorized next year. I expect we’ll see others. But what we need first and foremost is a wholesale rejection of the “welfare mother” stereotypes that got us this mean program to begin with.