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

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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."

Baker is now looking for more or better work, but so far has found nothing.

"For me, the economy has gone down," says Baker, who scours the want ads regularly. "There is definitely no opportunity. If I were able to find a job where I could make more money that would help out a lot. It is really hard to find a job."

'CHILDCARE IS A PAIN IN THE BUTT'

Baker is hardly the only single mother viewing her financial future in grim terms. According to The Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, single-parent families saw their annual earnings plummet twenty percent between 2007 and 2010, compared to only 5 percent for two-parent families. Economic survival has gotten harder and harder for these families: the number of single-parent families in poverty reached 35.3 percent in 2010, up from 30.9 percent three years earlier. The District of Columbia, Wyoming and Kansas saw the largest hikes in the percentage of single mothers dropping below the poverty line during this same period, according to the National Women's Law Center.

All of these numbers are no surprise to Corinne Weyer, a single mother in Minnesota who supports her son on wages she earns as a health aide at an assisted living facility. She receives no child support, has no benefits and relies on food stamps to keep her family afloat.

"I try to figure out how to make it all work without daycare," Weyer says, because "childcare is a pain in the butt." She feels lucky that her parents are able to watch her son while she works.

"I don't know where the money would come from for (daycare)," she says. "Rent is $550 in the apartment that I am renting now, and that is over half of my monthly income. I pay the rent, cross my fingers and hope the check doesn't clear before the money hits the account."

Like Baker, Weyer is looking for a different job that will pay more. But so far she has had little luck.

What she does have is a group of fellow single moms with whom she visits on Facebook to share stories and offer support. And that camaraderie and resilience is what another single mother, Katie Clifton, says gets her and her friends through the tough economic times.

"The moms that I know they hustle, they work, they clean houses on the side," says Clifton. "They find ways to bring the money in."

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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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