Before we get started, a special note! Please join me and Legal Momentum’s Lisalyn Jacobs and Tim Casey at 11:00 am in the comments section on this post for TheNation.com’s first real-time discussion with commenters, moderated by Nation comments editor Sarah Arnold. We will be taking questions about today’s post, general questions about poverty, and any questions, comments, or suggestions you might have for TheNation.com’s This Week in Poverty blog. Please use the comments box at the top of the conversation thread, not the “reply” function.
Here’s the new American reality: about half of all kids will spend at least part of their childhood in a family headed by a single mother, and the typical single mother is white, has one kid, is separated or divorced, works and probably earns less than $25,000 a year.
Wait, what? Run that back to me.
Because when I was a kid being raised by a white single mom, President Reagan basically promised me we that we were different, special even. My Mom put herself through school and worked. The typical single mom, according to the president, was a “welfare queen” taking “government handouts” so she could drive her “Cadillac” and raise her “strapping young bucks” on “T-bone steaks.” He didn’t have to say she was black, lazy and never married—everyone knew it. This image persisted through welfare reform in 1996 when basic cash assistance was gutted, and it still grips the American psyche today.
But a new report from Tim Casey, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum—the nation’s oldest legal defense and education fund for women and girls—departs from this iconic portrayal of single moms. Instead, Casey goes out on a limb and turns to data from crazy outfits like the US Census Bureau. The report is a lot less fun than the alternative universe offered by the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, because Casey stubbornly insists on using “facts.”
“There are single mothers in large numbers in all demographic groups,” says Casey, who has worked on economic security issues like welfare, poverty and childcare for thirty-five years. “They tend to have only one or two children—only about one in five have more than two children.”
Indeed about 40 percent of single mothers are white, one-third black and one-quarter Hispanic. And there are other things Reagan never told me—like, only one-sixth haven’t completed high school, 25 percent have a college degree, 55 percent are divorced, separated or widowed, and at any one time 66 percent of single mothers are working outside the home—a single-mother employment rate above the average of other high-income countries.
But despite that higher work rate, Casey reports, “the single mother poverty rate in the US is [also] far above the average in high-income countries.”
And that’s what has Casey and other advocates who operate in the fact-based world so worried. Forty percent of single mother–headed families are poor—defined as earning less than about $17,300 annually for a family of three—but only one in ten single mothers receive cash welfare assistance. The majority of the 16.4 million poor children in the United States are in single mother–headed families.