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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.

Christine Leach and Sharron Tetrault should be success stories of welfare reform: both are single mothers who have spent their lives working to make a better life for themselves and their children, and have tried hard to avoid welfare assistance. But they are struggling.

While Leach, a single mother of an 11-year-old, has a full-time job at a bar, it doesn’t provide any benefits. So she’s seeking a second job, one that can also help her move into her own home and out of her friend’s place. Part of her plan to move on to a better job is to get a better education: “I haven’t had any kind of education since I’ve had my daughter [in high school], I’ve been working, working, working and making sure I have a roof over our head and food on the table,” she says.

But as with many single mothers, childcare is always a factor. After her daughter gets out of school, Leach is lucky enough to have a cousin willing to provide childcare. She worries about what to do with her daughter when she goes back to school.  

Her story echoes that of millions of other single parents. But our country just can’t seem to shake the myth of the welfare queen – the single mother supposedly living large off of the government without any inclination to get a job. Welfare reform was supposed to get rid of this specter by pushing women into the workforce, and the tradeoff was that the government would provide them the support they needed, help such as childcare subsidies and food stamps. But single mothers are still working desperately to stay afloat, or these days, just to find a job. The supports they need have been almost entirely eroded, and even many of those who qualify for benefits aren’t receiving them.

Republicans have stood in lockstep against any measures that might help ease their situation or revive that Clinton-era bargain, such as increased spending on childcare subsidies or unemployment benefits. In fact, many conservative lawmakers are starving those programs of the cash they need. So the single mothers’ crisis rages on, with no lifelines in sight.

Tetrault was a single mother back when welfare was reformed who got an education that led to a better job. Her story should be what Leach has to look forward to. But now at 47, she’s almost back where she started. She’s been out of work since January and her unemployment benefits run out in a matter of weeks. “I worked my ass off to get a college education to get off welfare and I’ve been working straight ever since,” she says. “When you overcome so much and you’re still at the bottom, it’s like what the hell is the point?” Even for these moms doing everything right, the cards are still stacked against them. 

Pretty much every demographic has been hit hard by the recession. But the unemployment rate for single mothers is 14.6 percent, at its highest level in over 25 years. Compare it to married mothers, who are experiencing a rate less than half that. Many families in the country are affected by our unemployment crisis, but among married couples who have an unemployed member in the family, almost 80 percent had at least one other wage-earner to fall back on. In contrast, only about 45 percent of families headed by single women had an employed member. That leaves over half of unemployed single mothers with no family to turn to. 

They were supposed to be able to lean on government subsidies. But the problem of what to do with their children can be one of the largest hurdles single mothers face when they hunt for work. With a paycheck gone after a job loss, they should have subsidized childcare so they can leave their kids in good hands while they distribute resumes and go on interviews. This is a serious expense: it’s been  estimated that paying for childcare accounts for over three-quarters of single mothers’ monthly expenditures.

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