This Week in Poverty: U.S. Single Mothers — ‘The Worst Off’

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We’re proud to collaborate with The Nation in sharing insightful journalism related to income inequality in America. The following is an excerpt from Nation contributor Greg Kaufmann’s “This Week in Poverty” column.

In my work covering poverty this past year, I’d be hard pressed to come up with anyone who is doing more to shatter the myths about single mothers in the U.S. than Tim Casey, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest organization advocating on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls.

Casey himself was raised by a single mother, and he is relentless in his pursuit of the facts about the real lives and living conditions of single parent families in America — especially critical at a moment when women are demonized for being unmarried and blamed for their circumstances.

Single Mother

In this May 2005 picture, Toni Gates, a 24-year-old single mother, sits in the living room of her home in Milwaukee. She works part time as a nursing assistant and earns about $500 every two weeks. "It is sort of hard to make ends meet," she said. "You've got the kids, you try to make it home and make dinner and get everything done for the next day." (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Last week, Casey and his colleague, Laurie Maldonado, research associate of the Luxembourg Income Study Center at the Graduate Center City University of New York, released an exhaustive new reportWorst Off — Single-Parent Families in the United States, A Cross-National Comparison of Single Parenthood in the U.S. and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries.

Using data from government agencies, social scientists and researchers worldwide, the report shows that single mothers in the U.S. — most of whom are either separated or were previously married — are employed more hours and yet have much higher poverty rates than their peers in other high-income countries. Let me run that by you again — because it’s generally not what you’ve been reading of late in the news: the majority of single mothers in the U.S. are separated, divorced or widowed; and they work more hours and yet have higher poverty rates than single mothers in other high-income countries.

The employment rate for single mothers in the U.S. during the mid- to late- 2000s was 73 percent, compared to an average of 66 to 70 percent in peer countries.  In a 2000 comparative study of nine peer countries, 87 percent of employed U.S. single parents were working 30 or more hours a week, compared to just an average of 64 percent of jobholding single parents in the other countries.

And yet employment isn’t keeping U.S. single parents — more than 80 percent of whom are single mothers — out of poverty. Using 50 percent of median income as the standard for measuring poverty, U.S. children in single mother families have a poverty rate of 63 percent when only parental earnings are considered, comparable to the 61 percent average for children in single mother families in other high-income countries. But when transfer payments are included — such as a government child allowance, unemployment insurance and other assistance programs — the U.S. rate only declines to 51 percent, while the peer countries average poverty rate falls all the way down to 27 percent.

“The reason we have these high poverty rates for single mother families — despite their comparatively high employment rates and high share of full-time workers — is because our income support system is terribly inadequate and there’s a very high rate of low-wage work,” says Casey.

Indeed, the U.S. lags far behind other high-income countries in supporting the combination of “jobholding and caregiving.” In all of the comparison countries, new parents are entitled to paid leave; in the U.S., just 11 percent of employees enjoyed it in 2011. The U.S. is the only one of the seventeen comparable countries without an entitlement to paid annual leave, which averages four weeks in peer countries. With the exception of the U.S. and Canada, all of the comparable nations also provide paid sick days, averaging over three days per year; and ten of the countries provide up to five days of paid leave annually to care for a sick child.

While a lack of paid leave makes it difficult for single parents to leave work in order to care for their children, a lack of affordable child care and early childhood education options are a significant barrier to finding employment and keeping it.

In the thirteen comparison countries that are members of the European Union, pre-primary care for children ages 3 to 5 is close to universally available. In the U.S., free education is generally available at least part-day for 5 year olds, but much less so for 3 and 4 year olds — with only 20 percent and 44 percent, respectively, enrolled in a public nursery school program in 2010.

As for child care, the cost in the U.S. is often prohibitive. In 2011, the average annual cost of full-time care for an infant at a day care center ranged from $4,591 in Mississippi to $20,178 in Washington, D.C.  While the federal government provides some child care subsidies for low-income parents, they reach only a fraction of those eligible and the co-pays can consume a significant chunk of a family’s income. (Georgetown University law professor Peter Edelman reported that federal assistance for child care currently reaches about one in seven of those who are eligible.)

“We are just so far behind other countries in making early childhood education and child care available,” says Casey.

If a single parent in the U.S. is able to work — which too often means placing a child in a precarious child care situation — there is a much greater likelihood that their work is in a low-wage job as compared to single parents in peer countries. In fact, in 2009, 25 percent of all U.S. jobholders were employed in low-wage jobs, compared to an average of 14 percent in peer countries. And 40 percent of U.S. single parents had low-wage employment — exceptionally high compared to other groups of workers in the nation.

With so many employed single mothers earning poverty wages, the lack of income support programs and health care in the U.S. completes what is seemingly a perfect storm of financial insecurity.

All of the comparison countries provide universal health care coverage. In 2010, 11 percent of U.S. children in single mother families — and 26 percent of single mothers — lacked health care coverage.

There is also a basic “child allowance program” — ongoing cash payments to offset the costs of raising children — in every peer country except the U.S. The programs either benefit every family without regard to income, or they are income-tested and benefits are reduced or eliminated, accordingly.

The U.S. does allow for single annual payments to many low-income families — through the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit — provided that they have earned income. In 2011, however, approximately one-third of single mothers had no earned income. And although the tax credits lifted over 8 million people over the poverty line, Republicans are now trying to limit the reach and effectiveness of these antipoverty measures during the current budget negotiations.

If a single mother in the U.S. loses her job, she will find an unemployment insurance (UI) system that is less generous and more difficult to qualify for than it is in peer countries. The median durational limit for such insurance in comparable nations is 57 weeks, compared to just 26 weeks in most U.S. states. (Except during a recession, when the limit is normally extended.)  However, because single mothers so often work in low-wage jobs — and the average benefit is around half of prior earnings — benefits are often meager. Further, single mothers in the U.S. are less likely to qualify for any benefits at all — their low-wage work often doesn’t meet minimum earnings requirements, and leaving a job for child care reasons disqualifies a worker from receiving benefits in some states. In 2010, 44 percent of all unemployed persons in the U.S. received unemployment benefits, but only 24 percent of unemployed single mothers.

Finally, there are the “social assistance programs” that “provide benefits to those whose income from other sources falls below a standard of minimum adequacy.”  In the U.S., this includes cash welfare — the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant — and food stamps (SNAP). Prior to welfare reform in 1996, for every 100 families with children living in poverty, 68 received cash assistance; but by 2010 that ratio dropped to just 27 families. States have discretion to determine eligibility and time limits so there are virtually 50 different systems. In a majority of states, the benefit levels have fallen below 30 percent of the official poverty line — so less than $6000 for a family of three. In the comparison countries, the benefit is just below the poverty standard of 50 percent of median income.

SNAP has been much more effective in helping single mother families — about 90 percent of eligible children participate. But Republicans are pushing for a block grant instead of funding based on need — which would be as disastrous as the TANF block grant — and Democrats have joined them in proposals calling for billions of dollars in cuts to SNAP.

Finally, the report points out that over half of all children growing up in the U.S. today will spend time in a single parent family during their lifetime, so a substantial portion of the nation’s population is affected by the current lack of public policy support.

“Before I started working on this paper — I knew each individual aspect of disadvantage — but I hadn’t looked at them all together and seen the cumulative impact,” says Casey, who has worked on these issues for thirty-five years. “It’s the income supports, the healthcare insurance, the early education, lack of paid leave, the low-wage work. It’s the cumulative weight of all these factors that makes the title — the Worst Off — a fair title.”

Casey sees nothing being proposed in the current budget debate that would make life better for single mothers and their families, but says “there’s a lot going on that could make life a whole lot worse.”

“So I hope this report will help raise the profile of single parent economic insecurity, and change the discourse,” he says. “We need to get beyond simplistic thinking and look at the range of policy options available — policies that would benefit both single parent and two-parent families — to ensure basic economic security to such a large segment of the population.”

Get Involved

Join the Single Parent Policy Advocacy Network (SPPAN) to educate and advocate for public policies to improve the economic security of single parents and their children. Simply send an e-mail with “subscribe” in the subject line to

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Call Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office, (202) 225-4000, tell him to pass a Violence Against Women Act that includes strong provisions to protect Native and immigrant women and LGBT survivors.

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Special Thanks

Over the past few months, Nation intern Christie Thompson has made this blog better with her keen insights, writing and organizational ability. She moves on to ProPublica in the new year and she will continue to write about inequality. You can follow her on Twitter.

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