How Poor Single Moms Survive

Kathleen Lantto |

From The Atlantic:

Pity the married working mom, who barely has time to do the dishes or go for a run at night, much less spend a nice evening playing Boggle with her husband and kids.

But if married working parents are struggling with time management these days, imagine the struggles of low-income single parents. Single-parent households (which by and large are headed by women) have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960. Now, 35 percent of children live in single-parent households.

But while the numbers are growing, the amount of help available to single mothers is not. Ever since the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Law (generally referred to as welfare reform) placed time limits and work requirements on benefits in an effort to get welfare recipients back into the workforce, single-parent families have had a harder time receiving government benefits. Some states have made it more difficult for low-income single-parent families to get other types of assistance too, such as imposing work requirements and other barriers for food stamps. According to a recent New York Times column, between 1983 and 2004, government benefits dropped by more than a third for the lowest-income single-parent families.

So how do they manage? How do single moms with few resources and little income survive?

“They trade, they bargain, they strategize, they give each other daycare help, they share housing and food—women learn to strategize their way through all of these resources,” Suzanne Morrissey, a professor at Whitman College who has studied these families, told me.

Research suggests that while two-parent families may be isolated islands of efficiency, single parents—even poor ones—rely on an ever-expanding social network to get by. That social network has become even more important in the wake of welfare reform, when women who couldn’t find work could no longer count on cash assistance, and had to depend on their families and friends.

“It was really piecing together help from family and friends, letting bills stay unpaid, and in some of the more dire situations, they doubled up with friends and other family members because housing is such a big cost,” said Kristin Seefeldt, a professor at the University of Michigan who recently released a study about the strategies used by low-income parents in the wake of welfare reform.

According to the paper, published last month by Seefeldt and Heather Sandstrom with the Urban Institute, many women did move off the welfare rolls and into jobs after welfare reform went into effect. But as the economy took a turn for the worse and women weren’t able to find jobs, a number of families became “disconnected,” meaning they were neither in the formal labor market nor the welfare system. About one-fifth of all low-income single mothers were“disconnected” in 2008, up from 12 percent in 2004, and these mothers had a median annual income of $535, Seefeldt said.

Davis has been able to find minimum-wage work over the years at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, but the money is barely enough to feed five kids, pay the rent, and put gas in her car. Improving her opportunities through education, a key idea behind welfare reform, was nearly impossible with the jobs available to her and the time constraints she faced because of motherhood. A few years ago, she tried to go back to school, but the only classes that fit her schedule were online. It was tough to attend online classes and do school work while raising five kids and working part-time, so Davis ended up failing two semesters and quitting.

Find the full article from The Atlantic.