So Much Wrong With Single Mother Stereotype

May 22, 2017

Posts on single motherhood consistently rank among my weekly top-10 viewed. I’ve published nothing on the issues for quite awhile.

So I’ll take a brief break — and give you one too — from the stream of reports, op-eds, forecasts and the like sparked by turbulence in the White House and fractiousness in the Congress.

Here’s some of what we learn from the aptly-titled Single Mother Guide, fleshed out from other sources and what’s stashed in my own brain.

What Single Mother Commonly Means and What It Should

First off, a bit of clarification. Single mothers, in all the standard data sources, are only unmarried women raising minor-age children. Widows who’ve sole responsibility for grandchildren don’t count. Likewise women not currently married who’ve let adult children move back in with them.

Social conservatives often speak disapprovingly of single mothers as women who gave birth out of wedlock and didn’t then enter into holy matrimony with a male breadwinner.

But somewhat more single mothers are either widowed, separated from their spouses or divorced — roughly 51%, according to the latest Census data. .

This isn’t new, but the percent is shifting toward the never-married. It doesn’t mean that all the never-married mothers had babies, however. Single women may choose to adopt a child, as several of my long-time friends have.

It also doesn’t mean that the never-married mothers have no adult in the house with whom they’re in a quasi-spousal relationship.

Perhaps fewer now that same-sex marriages are legal nationwide. But opposite-sex domestic partnerships so far outstripped them when the Supreme Court ruled the former a Constitutional right that they’re probably stillmore common.

On the other hand, an as-yet unknown number of same-sex marriage partners are officially single mothers because some state laws and/or administrative procedures prohibit or otherwise deter their spouses from adopting.

Recent Single Mother Trends

What’s definitely shifting is the age when single mothers first give birth. The teenage birthrate has hit another record low. Researchers have tried to tease out reasons. The one that seems most certain is more use of contraceptives, especially the maximally-effective long-acting, reversible kinds.

Economist Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution is championing LARCs, having earlier coauthored an oft-cited study that found a very low likelihood of poverty among people who married before becoming parents.

Some of you may recall how some conservatives seized on this as a simple, personally responsible way to avoid poverty.

But Sawhill’s concluded that it’s not a realistic basis for an anti-poverty strategy, given the upward trend in unmarried motherhood. She would instead have us promote “responsible parenthood,” i.e., choosing when to have a baby — and to make the choice easy and cheap.

What Accounts for Single Mother Poverty

We’ve got a debate on solutions to out-of-wedlock births, rooted in ideological differences. What’s beyond debate is the strong link between single motherhood and poverty.

Single-mother families consistently have the highest poverty rate of any household type — currently 28.2%, as compared to 5.4% for married couples. Whether the out-of-wedlock births or the poverty came first is an open question.

Most of our best research suggests both. We see, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are far less common among college graduates than women with at most a high school diploma.

So the former can earn far more by working — and live even better because college graduates tend to marry others even more than they used to.

Pregnancy surely compels some young women to drop out of high school, having no one to care for their child.

They’re then unable to work — at least for enough pay to keep the family out of poverty — because they’re still without the child care and lack the minimal credential so many employers require.

On the other hand, Kathryn Edin, best known as the coauthor of $2 a Day, earlier coauthored a study of poor single mothers. It too was based in part on her actually living in poor neighborhoods and gaining the trust of the people whose experiences and views she sought to understand.

Single mothers she interviewed there wanted children — “somebody to take care of,” as one said. But when they looked at their prospects for a trustworthy, breadwinning husband, they concluded the risks outweighed the potential rewards.

An Altogether Different Explanation

The cause-effect interaction the various studies indicate has commonsense appeal, as well as substantive credibility. But a recently-published study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board raises doubts.

It looks at wealth, rather than income. But, of course, the one begets the other and vice versa. The researchers tested various potential causes of wealth differences, including family structure.

When they looked at that factor within specific race/ethnicity groups, rather than across the whole sample, they found little or no correlation. “[T]he bottom line,” a summary concludes,” is that links between family structure and wealth are weak, inconsistent and mostly spurious.”

We need to look instead at factors related directly to race. We know more than enough to know how the legacy of slavery, out-and-out discrimination and less overt forms built into our income-related systems account for a large portion of the black/white wealth gap.

And we do, in fact, see that the percent of children being raised in single-parent families, mostly by mothers is higher for blacks than any other race/ethnicity group the Census Bureau breaks out.

Might they perhaps find a unique shortage of men who’d be suitable marriage material.

Might they also find positive role models in the single black mothers who’ve successfully raised children without the spousal role model some still insist that kids, boys especially need to stay out of trouble, on the path to a paying job, etc.

As I write this, I think of Mom, who raised two fine boys, including my late husband — and of what moms like her will likely face unless Congress basically scraps the proposed budget they’ll get from Trump on strikethrough Tuesday.

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Official U.S. Poverty Rate Finally Ticks Down

September 16, 2014

The Great Recession officially ended more than five years ago. Data from various sources indicate that the recovery has actually taken hold, even in the labor market. And now the official poverty rate does so too.

The Census Bureau just reported that the overall poverty rate for the U.S. population ticked down for the first time since 2006 — from 15% in both 2011 and 2012 to 14.5% last year.

But like the other indicators, the new rate shows we’ve still got a long way to go — and that such prosperity as the recovery has generated is far from equally shared.

The new poverty rate translates into 45.3 million people poor enough to fall below the Census Bureau’s poverty thresholds. These are very low — an annual income of less than $19,073 for a single parent with two children, for example.

More than 19.8 million people — 6.3% — lived in what’s commonly referred to as deep (or extreme or severe) poverty, i.e., had incomes below half the threshold applicable to their family size and configuration.

As in the past, the child poverty rate was considerably higher than the overall rate — 19.9%, representing well over 14.6 million children or about one in three of all our country’s poor. And the senior poverty rate was considerably lower — 9.5%.

Approximately 6.5 million children — 8.8% lived in deep poverty. This was true for only 2.7% of seniors.

But we’ve reasons to expect that the Census Bureau’s report on its more complex Supplemental Poverty Measure will show markedly higher rates for seniors, as well as somewhat lower rates for children.

Other disparities generally mirror those we’ve seen before. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly triple the rate for non-Hispanic whites — 27.2%, as compared to 9.6%.
  • The deep poverty rate for blacks was 12.2%, while only 4.3% of non-Hispanic whites were that poor.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 23.5% and their deep poverty rate 9.4%.
  • Rates for Asians were 10.5% and 5.2% respectively.

Disparities among family types also replicate a familiar patterns. The percent of married couples who were officially poor was 5.8%, while the percent for single-woman families was 30.6%. Families headed by a single man were again in between — 15.9%. And there were, as usual, far fewer of them.

Like the overall rate, most of these breakout rates were lower than in 2012. Not, however, the poverty rate for blacks or the ever-so-much-lower deep poverty rates for non-Hispanic whites and married couples.

None of the rates was as low as in 2007 — the last year before the Census survey reflected the recession. And those rates were nothing to cheer about.


Offical U.S. Poverty Stays Flat at 15%

September 17, 2013

I was all set to write about how the official U.S. poverty rate dipped down, as experts had predicted. But no. The Census Bureau reported this morning that the 2012 rate was statistically the same as in 2011 — 15%.

The economy has supposedly been in a recovery mode since June 2009, but the poverty rate hasn’t budged for three years now. It’s still 2.5% higher than in 2007, just before the recession set in — and in fact, a bit higher than the year the recession officially ended.

As I and many others have often cautioned, the official rate is based on an over-simple, outdated measure that understates the number of people who barely — if at all — have enough to live on.

It also, as some examples below indicate, fails to capture the anti-poverty impacts of many of our major safety net programs.

At this point, however, the results it produces are what we’ve got. And the measure is consistent from year to year. So trends are reasonably reliable.

Here then is some of what we learn from the poverty portion of the new report.

The Big Numbers

All told, nearly 46.5 million people were poor enough to fall below the Census Bureau’s very low poverty thresholds — about $18,500 for a parent and two children, for example.

Though the poverty rate is the same, it represents about 249,000 more people than in 2011.

Of these, 6.6% — 20.4 million — were so poor as to fall below 50% of the applicable threshold, i.e., to have lived in what’s commonly referred to as extreme poverty.

Both the rate and the raw number are the same as in 2011 — and not surprisingly, higher than in 2007, when somewhat under 15.6 million people were in extreme poverty.

Race-Ethnicity Gaps

Poverty rates for all major race-ethnicity groups also flat-lined. So the disparities remained very large. For example:

  • The black poverty rate was nearly three times the rate for white, non-Hispanics — 27.2%, as compared to 9.7%.
  • The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.6%.
  • For Asians, the poverty rate was 11.7%.

The extreme poverty rates mirror these gaps — only 4.3% for white, non-Hispanics and a somewhat higher 5.7% for Asians, but 10.1% for Hispanics and 12.7% for blacks.

Married and Single

The disparity between poverty rates for married couples and families headed by a single person also remained extraordinarily large.

For families headed by a single woman, the rate was nearly five times times the rate for married couples — 30.9%, as compared to 6.3%.

The gap was smaller for families headed by a single man, but 14.6% of them were still officially poor.

Young and Old

As in the past, the child poverty rate, i.e., for people under 18, was considerably higher than the rate for the 65 and older crowd.

  • The child poverty rate was 21.8% — statistically the same as in 2011. Nearly 16.1 million children were officially poor — more than a third of all people in poverty.
  • More than 7.1 million children — 9.7% — lived in extreme poverty.
  • By contrast, the poverty rate for seniors was 9.1% and their extreme poverty rate just 2.7%.

We can chalk the age disparities up largely to the oft-maligned Social Security programs. Without them, the senior poverty rate would have been nearly four times greater.

However, the disparities are larger than they would be if the Census Bureau used a less crude measure, as we see in the results of last year’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

The Bureau didn’t preview its SPM figures this year, but it did the equivalent with a few examples of what researchers can learn by using its table creator tool.

So we learn that counting the the Earned Income Tax Credit would reduce the number of poor children by 3.1 million. And if SNAP (the food stamp program) benefits were counted, 4 million fewer people would have qualified as poor.

I don’t suppose I need to say that these benefits are squarely in the House Republicans’ bull’s eye.

Policies to ensure that the economic benefits of the recovery reach the very large number of poor and near-poor working families in this country seem a distant dream.

But the new poverty figures ought to be a wake-up call.


Santorum’s Easy Anti-Poverty Remedy

September 4, 2012

Once and future Presidential hopeful Rick Santorum set off a spate of interesting responses when he gave Republican conventioneers — and anyone tuned in at home — his prescription for avoiding poverty.

“Graduate from high school, work hard, and get married before you have children,” he said. If you do these three things, “the chance you’ll ever be in poverty is just two percent.”

Santorum was borrowing from a book co-authored by Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins, who played a key role in the original welfare reform legislation.

I remarked at the time that the magic three seemed over-simple — and dangerously close to blaming poor people for their plight.

But that isn’t what Sawhill and Haskins had in mind. From the get-go, they advocated public policies that would help children born in poverty climb the income scale.

They’ve since reiterated the need for such policies. At this point, they say, “our American economy tends to help those at the top stay there while making it difficult for those at the bottom to move up.”

This is hardly what you’d take away from Santorum’s speech, as Wonkblogger Dylan Matthews observes.

That two percent chance reflects a misreading, if not deliberate abuse of the unacknowledged Sawhill-Haskins study.

More importantly, the experts Matthews cites object — and rightly — to the notion that people have so much personal control over the three factors alleged to provide a virtual guarantee against poverty.

The recession certainly gives us a perspective that seems to have eluded Santorum. Millions of people lost their jobs — and still don’t have an opportunity to “work hard,” except at looking for work.

Graduation from high school may not be altogether under personal control either, adds Professor Harry Holzer, a prominent expert on low-wage workers and anti-poverty policies.

Shawn Fremstad at the Center on Economic and Policy Research attacks the magic three from a different angle. Look at the latest poverty data, he says.

In 2010, 70% of working-age adults below the poverty line had at least a high school diploma. And 64.3% of them were or had been married.

This doesn’t however, tell us anything specific about the anti-poverty antidote of postponing childbirth until after the wedding bells have rung.

That’s where Legal Momentum comes in with the first of its myth-busting fact sheets on single motherhood. No coincidence, I think, that the organization published it the day after Santorum’s speech.

The fact sheet puts together non-marital birth rates and child poverty rates from 17 countries around the world. The child poverty rates, I assume, can stand in for the poverty rates of the moms.

We see that non-marital birth rates are considerably higher in some European countries. But the child poverty rates are much lower.

It may be the case then that having children before marriage increases the probability of poverty here in the U.S. — though mostly for women.

But that’s a function of our public policies. And I’m not talking here about the putative “assault on marriage and the family” that Santorum suggests has something to do with difficulties climbing the ladder of success.

He claims that “marriage is disappearing in places where dependency is highest” — code, I suspect, for groups poor enough to qualify for public benefits, especially “welfare,” i.e., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

But the OECD report that Legal Momentum draws on tells us that countries with more robust family benefits programs have far lower child poverty rates.

It’s not dependency that’s responsible for poverty that passes from generation to generation. Nor the rise in the percent of children who aren’t being raised in “homes with married moms and dads.”

It’s policy choices we’ve made to let kids grow up poor. So less likely to graduate from high school. Less likely then to get jobs that let them live the American dream, as Santorum says we’ve all got a right to.

And all can if we’re just given “freedom” from those de-moralizing government benefits.


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.