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.

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How Much Does Single-Mother Poverty Cost Our Nation?

February 24, 2011

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.


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.