How Poor Single Moms Survive

Welfare reform has driven many low-income parents to depend more heavily on family and friends for food, childcare, and cash.

Jim Young / Reuters

Pity the married working mom, who barely has time to do the dishes or go for a run at night, much less spend a nice evening playing Boggle with her husband and kids.

But if married working parents are struggling with time management these days, imagine the struggles of low-income single parents. Single-parent households (which by and large are headed by women) have more than tripled as a share of American households since 1960. Now, 35 percent of children live in single-parent households.

But while the numbers are growing, the amount of help available to single mothers is not. Ever since the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Law (generally referred to as welfare reform) placed time limits and work requirements on benefits in an effort to get welfare recipients back into the workforce, single-parent families have had a harder time receiving government benefits. Some states have made it more difficult for low-income single-parent families to get other types of assistance too, such as imposing work requirements and other barriers for food stamps. According to a recent New York Times column, between 1983 and 2004, government benefits dropped by more than a third for the lowest-income single-parent families.

So how do they manage? How do single moms with few resources and little income survive?

“They trade, they bargain, they strategize, they give each other daycare help, they share housing and food—women learn to strategize their way through all of these resources,” Suzanne Morrissey, a professor at Whitman College who has studied these families, told me.

Research suggests that while two-parent families may be isolated islands of efficiency, single parents—even poor ones—rely on an ever-expanding social network to get by. That social network has become even more important in the wake of welfare reform, when women who couldn’t find work could no longer count on cash assistance, and had to depend on their families and friends.

“It was really piecing together help from family and friends, letting bills stay unpaid, and in some of the more dire situations, they doubled up with friends and other family members because housing is such a big cost,” said Kristin Seefeldt, a professor at the University of Michigan who recently released a study about the strategies used by low-income parents in the wake of welfare reform.

According to the paper, published last month by Seefeldt and Heather Sandstrom with the Urban Institute, many women did move off the welfare rolls and into jobs after welfare reform went into effect. But as the economy took a turn for the worse and women weren’t able to find jobs, a number of families became “disconnected,” meaning they were neither in the formal labor market nor the welfare system. About one-fifth of all low-income single mothers were disconnected” in 2008, up from 12 percent in 2004, and these mothers had a median annual income of $535, Seefeldt said.

Though the name implies otherwise, “disconnected” mothers are especially reliant on social networks. They buy groceries with food stamps, live in public housing, and ask family and friends for cash. Doing this is far less lucrative than working, but mothers often found that the wages they could make barely offset the costs and hassle of transportation and childcare and the loss of Medicaid benefits, Seefeldt said.

“Motherhood left them with no choice but to stay at home because of limited childcare options, limited job opportunities (especially jobs with a schedule that fit working mothers’ needs), or pressure from a partner who would not allow them to work outside the home,” Seefeldt and Sandstrom write.

Syracuse resident Brandi Davis, a 35-year-old mother of five, has been on public assistance since she was 18 years old. She asks her parents and grandmother to watch her kids when she’s working her minimum-wage job at the grocery store, and sometimes her older children help out, too. The help is necessary, especially since the jobs available to Davis, who has a GED, mostly pay minimum wage.

“You’re not going to get far working at Burger King,” she told me.

Delores Leonard, a single mom and McDonalds employee, walks her kids to school in Chicago. (Jim Young / Reuters)

Davis has been able to find minimum-wage work over the years at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, but the money is barely enough to feed five kids, pay the rent, and put gas in her car. Improving her opportunities through education, a key idea behind welfare reform, was nearly impossible with the jobs available to her and the time constraints she faced because of motherhood. A few years ago, she tried to go back to school, but the only classes that fit her schedule were online. It was tough to attend online classes and do school work while raising five kids and working part-time, so Davis ended up failing two semesters and quitting.

She knows that she needs a job where she has room for advancement to make it worth the time she’ll sacrifice away for her children. But at the state jobs office, she told me, “they just want to send you out there, get any job, accept any job, they don’t care if you’re happy with the job.”

Seefeldt and Sandstrom found that Davis’s struggles are typical of single mothers without more education and work experience: They face big barriers re-entering the workforce—dealing with childcare, transportation, and health insurance, all for paltry wages. Unfortunately, many mothers who do find work are only one crisis away from losing that job. One broken car, one sick kid, one court date can upend the fragile system they’d created for themselves.

“The mantra in Michigan was a job, a better job, a career: Through work you would experience upward mobility,” Seefeldt told me. “There was never any evidence that was the case.”

The lack of good, steady jobs makes it clear why single mothers rely on “packaging strategies,” as Seefeldt and Sandstrom term them. Sometimes, these strategies become so entrenched that women don’t need to depend on assistance from the government at all, especially when there are numerous hurdles to clear in order for them to receive benefits.

Suzanne Morrisey did her doctoral research on women in Syracuse, New York, eligible for benefits through Women with Infants and Children (WIC). Part of her research focused on why so many mothers in Syracuse who qualified for WIC were not enrolled in the program (women who are pregnant and on Medicaid are eligible for WIC). In nearby counties, three-quarters of eligible women were enrolled in WIC; in Syracuse, fewer than half were.

Morrisey found that women in Syracuse had created their own social networks that sometimes provided what they could get from WIC, but with a lot less hassle. If the father of their child brought over a big case of infant formula, there’s little reason for them to go to a WIC office, wait in line and receive vouchers, which they have to bring to a supermarket, where they are perhaps stigmatized for using benefits. Solutions come from surprising places. One woman had a friend who worked at a clinic and gave her free expired formula, for example. Another would rely on the woman she called her “mother-in-law,” even though she wasn’t married to the father of her child, and was no longer in a relationship with him. Still others would trade childcare or share food that might soon spoil.

“Women spoke of myriad ways in which they relied on other women,” Morrissey writes in a forthcoming book about her research.

A WIC voucher in Utah (Jim Urquhart / Reuters)

Oftentimes, women kept the men in their lives on the periphery, knowing that the men might squander benefits or fail to come through on promises. In that sense, being a single mother was a choice they made, knowing that they at least had control over their children’s lives and that a partner would not be able to negatively influence the children.

Indeed, things sometimes went awry when women depended on males in their life for help. One woman Seefeldt and Sandstrom interviewed said she asked male friends for help buying groceries or paying bills, but they sometimes asked for physical favors in return.

“He wants to stay the night, and thinking he’s gonna get over,” one woman told researchers. “Just because you bought me eight rolls of toilet paper and some dish rags and stuff, you’re not going to get over.”

In Syracuse, more than half of households are headed by single-parent families. For many single mothers there, they rely on the sort of networks Seefeldt and Sandstrom describe in order to get by. But Rhonda O’Connor, who heads up Visions for Change, a Syracuse nonprofit that seeks to help women transition from benefits to jobs, worries that these networks prevent women from committing to work. Visions for Change works with Davis and other mothers, providing them with individual counselors who help them write their resumes, prepare for job interviews, and start budgeting their income. Her group walks clients through the steps to transition off public assistance and into the workforce. O’Connor told me she thinks the social networks of some of her clients sometimes prevent them from getting jobs. Their loyalty is to the person who has helped them out of a jam, she told me, and they will choose to help that person, even if it means leaving work.

“If you take someone from generational poverty—their driving force is based on relationships,” O’Connor told me. “That's how they survive—it’s all relationship-based. My neighbors help me out, my friends help me out, my relatives help me out. And I’m going to choose to help them out if something comes up.”

Still, without these networks, these women would have a far harder time. One woman I spoke to in Syracuse is 32 and has four children. She gets no help from family or friends. She is working with Visions for Change to try and get a job, but it’s challenging with childcare demands and no one to help. She dropped out of high school in ninth grade and is currently working on her GED. All that’s on her resume is homemaker, she told me, since she’s been home with her kids, who range in age from four to 13. Her typical day? She gets up at 6 a.m., gets her kids on the bus to middle school, walks her 4-year-old 1.5 miles to school, gets on a bus to Visions for Change, applies for jobs, leaves in the afternoon, walks to the store, gets food for dinner, and helps her kids with homework while she prepares dinner. She has family in town, but they have their own families, and can’t help, she told me.

“They just don’t have the time,” she said. “Raising my family—that’s all on me.”