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How America Is Failing Single Mothers – and Why the GOP Is Making it Worse

Every demographic has been hit hard by the recession, but the unemployment rate for single mothers is 14.6 percent, its highest level in over 25 years.

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“I know that I'm blessed right now not to have to have to worry about childcare subsidies. My heart goes out to [young single mothers],” muses Tetrault, who used subsidies when she was working and getting an education. But while there was some federal support for subsidized childcare in 2009’s stimulus package, it hasn’t kept pace with the need, and now many states are slashing subsidies. At least nine states have cut access to subsidized programs or the amounts they pay in subsidies. More than a dozen are placing eligible children on waiting lists, offering no immediate help to out-of-work mothers. Many of them have to turn to cash assistance through welfare just to get the money they need. As one woman  told the New York Times , “I can’t work without childcare, and I can’t afford childcare without work.”  

They’re particularly vulnerable to job loss. Sixty-two percent of single mothers are employed in retail or service industries, and because these are low-skill jobs, they’re usually the first to get cut. These jobs also tend to be less flexible, leaving women in a tough spot if a child gets sick or has another emergency. Leach says that over the years childcare has been a challenge, particularly when her daughter is ill.

“The majority of the time [employers] want you to find someone to cover your shift or they want a doctor’s note, so I often have to go to the hospital to get a note so I don’t get fired,” she explains. Chronic health problems experienced by the mothers or their children are one of the main reasons single mothers lose their jobs when moving off of welfare. In a report by the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU Wagner, “ At Rope’s End,” authors Mariko Chang and Nicole Mason state, “Due to childcare or other care taking demands, [single mothers] may be unable to obtain full-time employment or pursue education or training opportunities to secure higher wages,” making them more likely to suffer spells of unemployment in a recession. This may be why they are twice as likely overall to experience unemployment compared to married women.  

This lack of support for childcare is reneging on a deal government struck with low-income women in the 1990s when welfare was reformed. The deal said that in return for women getting pushed off assistance and into the job market, the government would step up and support them in the endeavor, in large part by helping to pay for childcare. In a 1996 radio address, President Clinton promised, “We will protect the guarantees of health care, nutrition and child care, all of which are critical to helping families move from welfare to work.” Yet those lifelines have slowly but surely been cut off.

“I’ve been watching this for over twenty years, the dismantling of it,” Tetrault observes. The Connecticut Senate  just passed a paid sick leave bill requiring employers to offer their employees paid sick time, a much needed measure that will help ensure mothers aren’t penalized for caring for their kids. It’s the first state in the nation to do so. In every other state, employers are free to deny time off and fire employees who don’t show up. Without that legislation in place, one child’s sickness can mean the loss of a mother’s job.

Meanwhile, the GOP has stood firm in its opposition to any further stimulus spending, even though money to help women find care for their children would give them a vital tool in their quest to become re-employed citizens or to keep their jobs. Without further help from the government, childcare subsidies will continue to disappear just when more and more single mothers need them. 

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