Lazy. Poor-decision makers. Welfare-grabbing baby-makers. Irresponsible. Those are only a few of the character deficiencies single parents tick off when asked how society views them. Single parents, specifically single moms of color, are framed as a social problem. It’s an old and resurgent narrative. Take for example, the recent uptick among legislators, pundits and scholars in framing “single mom households” as the main cause of poverty and stagnant intergenerational mobility. One side blames single moms, the other goes to great lengths to disprove this theory sold as indisputable fact. Both use social science data to “prove” their positions. So what’s real? And more important, how do we turn the corner from this boxed-in, blaming narrative to one that attends to the needs of all of America’s children, regardless of the family structures in which they live? — Women of color, according to a new national survey that appears to have flown under the radar, have a suggestion.
In a nationally representative and bipartisan survey of 3,500 women, an overwhelming majority of women of color agreed that the government and the workplace should adapt to contemporary family structures—not the other way around. Nearly 90 percent of African-American women and 80 percent of Latinas surveyed want policies to, “adapt to the reality of single-parent families” at all income levels. Black women and Latinas, the January report concludes, are a powerful voice for all of America’s families.
Most children under the age of 18 in the United States (65 percent) still live in households with married parents. But roughly 25 million children (34 percent) live in single-parent households—10 million of which are headed by single mothers, with another 2 million headed by single dads—and that figure looks to increase. A disproportionate number of black children (nearly 70 percent) are being raised in single-parent families. But the greatest growth in numbers of children living in single-parent families over the past few years has occurred among Latinos and fathers. And while only 9 percent of married couples have children living in poverty, a much higher share of single parent households (37 percent) are poor.
In order to find out what a society responsive to single parent families looked like, I talked to a few single parents at various income levels and backgrounds. Many had answers at the quick, like increasing the federal poverty line, weeding out fraud in government programs and ending policies that appear, by design, to break up families. And others just weren’t sure. They found it difficult to envision another world.
Increasing the federal poverty scale or at the very least, extending low or no cost quality child care to families within striking distance of the cut-off—$20,000 for a family of three, per current guidelines—topped the list among single parents and their advocates.
Kimberly Armstrong, 45, is a Baltimore homeowner. When her younger son, Eric, was 12 she was a bus driver working split shifts. The hours were steady but the four-hour shifts were erratic. With no set schedule, it was almost impossible to spend quality time with her boys and she worried constantly about her younger son getting into trouble.
“I went to the department of social services here in Baltimore to get help,” she says, to help her afford an after-school or mentoring program. “A lady came out into the waiting room and said, ‘if you make this amount then you qualify for assistance and if you don’t, you don’t qualify.’ I can tell you that of about 15 women in there, four or five of us had to get up and leave. And at the time I was only making about $30,000 a year.”
Armstrong raised her three children, first, two boys and later on a girl who is now 15, as a single mom. She lost Eric to street violence when he was 16. The federal poverty line perplexes her.
“If I’m out here going to work every day making a bit above the average income, why not help those people who’re trying to help themselves?”
How the federal poverty guidelines are calculated hasn’t changed much since 1969. Describing the fundamental ways in which the country and basic needs have changed since then, one researcher says in a 2013 Moyers report, “[We’re] measuring what it means to be poor today in what are essentially early 1960s terms.”
A federal employee for 20 years, Cassaundra Spann, 44, understands Armstrong’s request. Her job offers flextime so affordable and quality childcare was the only request on her wish list. While watching her 10-year-old son’s basketball practice from the bleachers in a New Jersey gym, she vividly recalls the burden of $900-a-month childcare for four years, beginning when he turned 2.
“I couldn’t wait until it was over,” she says, “but I knew it was important for him to be in that early childhood environment and I see now, how it’s paid off. But I struggled.”
For Brooklyn-born and -raised Carmen Tirado, ensuring fair distribution of below-poverty line services to those in need, tops the list. The 23-year-old takes an adult literacy class in order to, “better myself and my children’s opportunities.” It’s almost 8 p.m. and Tirado is intermittently calming and ordering her three small boys to bed.
“A lot of single moms don’t get help from the government,” she says. “And there’re a handful of people that take advantage, which makes it bad for the ones who actually need the assistance. I know a mom who has three kids like me but she was denied public assistance. And I know someone who gets public assistance but who goes and changes the food stamps into money instead of using it for food. It’s not fair,” Tirado says.
And for Delaware mom, Chandra Pitts, ending government policies that purposely break up families of color tops a ready shortlist. Pitts is the single mom of a 16-year-old son in private school. She also is the founder and executive director of One Village Alliance, a community and youth development non-profit that also runs the largest fatherhood program in the state. Between mass incarceration and housing policies, so many low-income families don’t stand a chance at staying together, she says.
“In HUD housing complexes if there’s a male in the home, a single mother may not be qualified to live there. And if it’s a two-parent home, there’s just not as much support.” By penalizing the presence of any male, she says, these policies are producing single parent households.
But the single biggest intervention with outsized impact on children and family structure, Pitts says, would be to end mass incarceration.
“Simply, stop removing men from their communities,” Pitts says. Single mothers head nearly 60 percent of Wilmington’s households. The second-smallest state in the union also has one of the highest incarceration rates in the entire country.
Change mandatory minimum laws for nonviolent offenders, she says, and lessen penalties for men re-entering their communities.
“Re-entry would make a huge difference,” Pitts says. “Men leaving prison here can’t get a driver’s license, which then affects their ability not just to get a job but to get to it. It’s impossible to do almost anything even if the record is from 30 years ago.”
Along with the above broad changes, Tirado has a “start here,” suggestion for pundits, legislators and policy makers, too: Be clear about who a single parent is and what it means.
“Just because you’re a single-parent household doesn’t actually mean that the other parent isn’t helping out or isn’t there for his children,” Tirado says. “So there needs to be a distinction between single parents raising children completely on their own and those raising children with financial or emotional assistance from the father.”
Catching up on what Tirado has long observed and lived in her Brooklyn neighborhood, the CDC recently released a report looking at fathers’ involvement in the lives of their children. It documents that black fathers living outside the home were more involved—from doing homework to shuttling kids to activities—than white and Latino fathers.
Cassaundra Spann even takes issue with separating out single parents from married parents. “Don’t we all do the same thing?” she asks. Others refer to her as a single mom, she says, but she never uses the phrase to describe herself. She thinks of herself only as a parent who cares and sacrifices for her 10-year-old son like any other parent.
Which comes back to the stigma still surrounding single parenting and corrodes policy discussions around it. From the point of view of Neil Pollicino, a long time program coordinator at the 40-year-old Single Parent Resource Center in New York City, single parenting is no character deficiency. In his work, it’s an experience—and it’s one that at least one spouse in marriages often takes on. Responding to demand, the SPRC evolved over the years to work with single spouses in married relationships, too.
“Living in a mobile modern society, where people now move many times before settling on a community and jobs mean traveling away from home, to some extent all parents are being forced to experience single parenting at some point or another,” Pollicino says. “The traditional role of the Huxtable family doesn’t necessarily exist anymore.”