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


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.

“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. 

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.

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