In my work covering poverty this past year, I’d be hard pressed to come up with anyone who is doing more to shatter the myths about single mothers in the United States than Tim Casey, senior staff attorney at Legal Momentum, the nation’s oldest organization advocating on behalf of the legal rights of women and girls.
Casey himself was raised by a single mother, and he is relentless in his pursuit of the facts about the real lives and living conditions of single-parent families in America—especially critical at a moment when women are demonized for being unmarried and blamed for their circumstances.
Yesterday, Casey and his colleague, Laurie Maldonado, research associate of the Luxembourg Income Study Center at the Graduate Center City University of New York, released an exhaustive new report, “Worst Off—Single-Parent Families in the United States, A Cross-National Comparison of Single Parenthood in the US and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries.”
Using data from government agencies, social scientists and researchers worldwide, the report shows that single mothers in the United States—most of whom are either separated or were previously married—are employed more hours and yet have much higher poverty rates than their peers in other high-income countries. Let me run that by you again—because it’s generally not what you’ve been reading of late in the news: the majority of single mothers in the United States are separated, divorced or widowed; and they work more hours and yet have higher poverty rates than single mothers in other high-income countries.
The employment rate for US single mothers during the mid- to late-2000s was 73 percent, compared to an average of 66 to 70 percent in peer countries. In a 2000 comparative study of nine peer countries, 87 percent of employed US single parents were working thirty or more hours a week, compared to just an average of 64 percent of jobholding single parents in the other countries.
And yet employment isn’t keeping US single parents—more than 80 percent of whom are single mothers—out of poverty. Using 50 percent of median income as the standard for measuring poverty, US children in single mother families have a poverty rate of 63 percent when only parental earnings are considered, comparable to the 61 percent average for children in single mother families in other high-income countries. But when transfer payments are included—such as a government child allowance, unemployment insurance and other assistance programs—the US rate only declines to 51 percent, while the peer countries average poverty rate falls all the way down to 27 percent.
“The reason we have these high poverty rates for single mother families—despite their comparatively high employment rates and high share of full-time workers—is because our income support system is terribly inadequate and there’s a very high rate of low-wage work,” says Casey.