America's Silent Crisis: The Plight of the Single (Working!) Mother

As marriage declines among lower-income families, single parents are becoming a new norm. And that single parent is overwhelmingly a mother with a job.

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Single mothers are raising more of America's children than ever before. And for many of them, the economic precipice is creeping closer and closer.

For decades the number of single-parent families has climbed higher, with the overwhelming majority of these households led by women. In 1960, just 5 million children under 18 lived with only their mother. By 1980 that number had more than doubled. Today, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 19 million children live in single-mother families, up from 17 million in 2000. In some school districts today, including several in New York and Michigan, the majority of families are led by a single mother.

This seismic shift in the social and economic landscape comes amid tough economic times that are hitting single mothers especially hard, as New York Times writer Jason DeParle reported this weekend in his lengthy piece on declining marriage rates among the poor. In December 2007 the unemployment rate for single mothers sat below 7 percent. Today that number has leapt to nearly 12 percent, according to the National Women's Law Center. Most of these women work at least part-time, though finding work has gotten tougher. As Bureau of Labor Statistics Data shows, the percentage of single mothers employed in an average month dropped from 76 percent in 2000 to 68 percent a decade later. A combination of the overall economic slowdown, public sector job cuts, and an economy that favors the college-educated helps explain the soaring numbers in America's increasingly dual-speed economy.

'THERE IS JUST NO WAY'

For six months Rosa Rodriguez counted herself among the jobless. The San Francisco resident and mother of two lost her job at a meatpacking company when the slowing economy led management to lay off workers who had the least seniority.

"It was really hard; I didn't have the help of anyone," says Rodriguez, who is the sole breadwinner for her teenage daughter and nine-year-old son. "My savings went out the door just to cover the basics of food and rent."

Last year Rodriguez launched her own business, Sweets Collections, a high-end gelatin dessert company, with help from a program called Women's Initiative that offers business plan training and networking opportunities for low-income women who want to become entrepreneurs. Between her company profits and part-time work helping friends with their businesses, Rodriguez is now supporting her family with much more room to spare. She works regularly until midnight or 1 a.m. sending emails to potential customers and settling invoices. Her goal is to grow her profits so that she can focus full-time on Sweets Collections.

But even for those who have kept their jobs during the recession, covering expenses has become an increasingly uphill climb amid a feeble recovery that has come in sputtering fits and starts.

"My mom passed away about a year ago and before she passed we had to move, and now I am living in government housing so my rent goes according to my income," says Jessica Baker, a single mother in Troy, New York, who supporters her ten-year-old son on wages from her part-time job as a daycare worker while studying for her associate's degree. She signs up for classes around his school and her work schedule, which means she couldn't take any classes in the summer since no night school was on offer. "Each month paying rent, paying my car payment, paying my son's babysitter, there is just no way for me to financially manage things without looking for a second job or another job where I could make more money."

Presented by

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and deputy director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Women and Foreign Policy program. Her most recent book is The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.

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