News, Policies, & Trends

Harder Times for Single Mothers and Their Children

By | Feb 1, 2011

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 insecurityi.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 recentlytestified, 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 slidedating 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.

Photo credit: Big Grey Mare