Single-parent Families in Poverty

Jacqueline Kirby, M.S.

The Ohio State University


One of the most striking changes in family structure over the last twenty years has been the increase in single-parent families. In 1970, the number of single-parent families with children under the age of 18 was 3.8 million. By 1990, the number had more than doubled to 9.7 million. For the first time in history, children are more likely to reside in a single-parent family for reasons other than the death of a parent. One in four children are born to an unmarried mother, many of whom are teenagers. Another 40 percent of children under 18 will experience parental breakup.

Ninety percent of single-parent families are headed by females. Not surprisingly, single mothers with dependent children have the highest rate of poverty across all demographic groups (Olson & Banyard, 1993). Approximately 60 percent of U.S. children living in mother-only families are impoverished, compared with only 11 percent of two-parent families. The rate of poverty is even higher in African-American single-parent families, in which two out of every three children are poor.

Effects on Children

Past research has indicated that children from single-parent families are more likely to experience less healthy lives, on the average, than children from intact families. For instance, children growing up with only one parent are more likely to drop out of school, bear children out of wedlock, and have trouble keeping jobs as young adults. Other consequences include risks to psychological development, social behavior, and sex-role identification.

However, recent reviews criticize the methodology of many of these studies which support the "deviant" model of single-family structures. Confounding variables, such as income and social class, explain a large portion of the negative findings. When income is considered, substantially fewer differences arise between the intellectual development, academic achievement, and behavior of children in single-parent and two-parent families. Lack of income has been identified as the single most important factor in accounting for the differences in children from various family forms (Casion, 1982; Lindblad-Goldberg, 1989; Amato & Keith, 1991).

Poverty

Mother-only families are more likely to be poor because of the lower earning capacity of women, inadequate public assistance and child care subsidies, and lack of enforced child support from nonresidential fathers. The median annual income for female-headed households with children under six years old is roughly one-fourth that of two-parent families. However, the number of children per family unit is generally comparable, approximately two per household.

Child Care Costs

One of the major expenditures of single parents is child care. On average, a poor mother spends 32 percent of her total weekly income on child care. This percentage nearly doubles when more than one child needs care. For this reason, 65 percent of single parents are turning to informal, unpaid arrangements--such as extended family or neighbors--as alternatives to formal day care (Schmottroth, 1994). Although this form of child care may allow the single parent's limited income to be distributed across a greater set of needs (i.e., housing, clothing, food), quality of care may be sacrificed.

Poor, single, working parents often are forced to choose between quality and flexibility of child care arrangements. Many jobs offering adequate pay require long and/or irregular hours. For many single parents, this may mean using less well-trained or experienced child care providers who are working long hours or supervising too many children.

Approximately 53 percent of single mothers are not in the work force because they are unable to find affordable, quality, child care. The majority of these mothers have no high school diploma, leaving them with few job opportunities or jobs that pay only the minimum wage. Parents with two or more children often have little money left after paying taxes and child care. As a result, single parents are forced to stay home and apply for public assistance to ensure adequate housing, food, and medical coverage for their children.

African-American single mothers and their children may experience the most adverse consequences of unemployment because their earnings constitute a greater percentage of their total family income. The reasons cited for this disparity are that African-American mothers are less likely to awarded child support payments, to receive child support payments, or to have a second wage earner living in the household (Grossman & Hayghe,1982). Long-term unemployment markedly increases the likelihood of poverty, receipt of public assistance, negative life changes, and exposure to chronic, stressful conditions, such as inadequate housing and poor neighborhoods.

Poverty's Effects on Parenting

Income loss appears to affect the well-being of children indirectly through negative impact on family relations and parenting. Single parents experience a variety of stressors related to poverty (i.e., financial, emotional, social). The link between economic stress and mental health has been documented in various studies. Single mothers must obtain sufficient money to cover the most basic needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing.

Financial strain is one of the strongest predictors of depression in single parents. Higher levels of depression is predictive of more punitive disciplinary practices and decreased parental nurturance, support, and satisfaction with the parenting role (McLoyd et al., 1994). The chronic strains of poverty combined with task overload significantly increases vulnerability to new life stressors. Poor single mothers often experience a cycle of hopelessness and despair which is detrimental to both themselves and their children.

Overcoming Difficult Circumstances

Despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing poor single parents, many families have increasingly demonstrated themselves to be viable, well-adjusted, alternative family forms (Lindbald-Goldberg, 1989). Many are able to function well and to promote education, resourcefulness, and responsibility in their children. Successful single parent families have adopted more adaptive functioning styles including: 1) more available personal resources, which enhances their coping effectiveness; 2) better family organization, which balances household responsibilities and decreases task overload; 3) a positive family concept, which values loyalty, home-centeredness, consideration, communication, and closeness; 4) an ability to highlight positive events and place less emphasis on negative aspects of stressful events; and 5) possessing less stress-producing, supportive social networks.

For example, adaptive mothers demonstrated strong personal authority by controlling their schedules to allow more time for relaxing activities (i.e., dating, going to the movies, talking with friends, etc.). Adaptive families possessed a sense of control over their own destiny and perceived themselves as effectively dealing with the outside world. In addition, well-functioning families had less frequent contact with relatives and experienced more reciprocity within these support systems than did the less adaptive families.

Implications for Family Life Educators

While encouraging marriage is important, recognizing that women are increasingly raising children alone and are at a disproportionate risk for poverty is equally important. For many, especially those in abusive relationships, marriage or remarriage is not a viable solution. Policies are needed which will work to ensure the future health and well-being of single parents and their children.

Many opportunities exist for Family Life Educators to address these issues through proactive programming. The University of Wisconsin's Center for Families Studies (1993) outlines various ways to: 1) promote strong, stable, two-parent families and improve the quality of marriage through premarital education programs which focus on self-assessment and teaching skills for strengthening relationships (i.e., effective communication); 2) provide parenting education in elementary schools, colleges, churches, and court-mandated classes for divorcing parents; 3) advocate child support enforcement, children's allowances, welfare reform, and quality child care; 4) encourage job training and financial management education for teenagers and young adults; 5) provide educational programming to employers about workplace reforms which allow single parents to balance the competing demands of work and family; 6) educate and train local leaders to positively influence family-related legislation.


References

Amato, P. R. (1993). "Children's adjustment to divorce: Theories, hypotheses, and empirical support." Journal of Marriage and the Family, 55, 23-58.

Bogenschneider, K., Kaplan, T., & Morgan, K. (1993). "Single parenthood and children's well-being." Wisconsin Family Impact Seminars Briefing Report.

Grossman, A. S., & Hayghe, H. (1982). "Labor force activity of women receiving child support or alimony." Monthly Labor Review, 105, 39-41.

Lindblad-Goldberg, M. (1989). "Successful minority single-parent families." In L. Combrink-Graham (Ed.) Children in family contexts. New York: Guildford.

McLoyd, V. C., Jayaratne, T. E., Ceballo, R., & Borquez, J. (1994). "Unemployment and work interruption among African American single mothers: Effects on parenting and adolescent socioemotional functioning." Child Development, 65, 562-589.

Olson, S. L., & Banyard, V. (1993). "Stop the world so I can get off for a while: Sources of daily stress in the lives low-income single mothers of young children." Family Relations, 42, 50-56.

Schmittroth, L. (Ed.) (1994). Statistical record of children. Detroit: Gale Research Inc.


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