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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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There are other factors working against these women. They aren’t even getting the welfare benefits they deserve. Far fewer women  receive unemployment benefits than men. This is largely because of earnings standards applicants must meet that often exclude low-wage workers and the fact that part-time workers aren’t eligible at all -- and women are the majority in both categories. You’d think that in an environment with such high unemployment, most lawmakers would be working to step up benefits to make sure more people are covered. But conservative lawmakers in Michigan, Missouri, and Florida have  permanently cut state unemployment benefits, and in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin they’ve proposed bills to do the same.

Meanwhile, other forms of support have terrible enrollment rates. Only 21 percent of poor children  were enrolled in TANF in 2009, the program formally known as welfare. Those whose families do get benefits typically only see $5 per person per day, an amount that falls below the poverty level. Inflation has also eroded the combined value of TANF and food stamps by about 23 percent over the last four years.  

All of this comes on top of the fact that single mothers already have much lower incomes than the general population. “ At Rope’s End” finds that “nearly half of all female-headed households live in poverty.” Single mothers’ median earnings are $32,597, compared to $71,830 for married couples. They also not only earn less than men, as all women do, but only earn 77 percent as much as married women with children and 87 percent as much as single women without children. It’ll be hard for them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with no cushion of savings – or even the benefits of the social safety net – to give them a boost. 

It’s clear that the system hasn’t been working for single mothers for a very long time, but the situation in this recession is bleak. Without increased money for childcare subsidies, rules to allow mothers to take time off to care for sick children, and better access to unemployment and welfare benefits, many single mothers will be left without anywhere to turn. They’ll continue to be vulnerable to job loss and given little help in getting back on their feet. That harms these women and the 18 million children in their care. It also goes back on the promises the government made that it would give them the resources to become reemployed. There are solutions to these problems, but Republican lawmakers have turned a blind eye and are instead making the situation worse.

Bryce Covert is assistant editor at the Roosevelt Institute's New Deal 2.0 blog.

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