Working single mothers are disproportionately likely to be poor, and their ranks are growing, according to a new report from the Working Poor Families Project.
While families headed by a working mom make up less than a quarter of all working families, they make up nearly 40 percent of all low-income ones. And their numbers are on the rise: the share of working families headed by a woman that are low income increased from 54 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2012. The share is even higher among African Americans, as 65 percent are low income.
The fact that more and more families headed by a working single mother fall into poverty is troubling, because more and more mothers are the primary source of income. A report last year found that a record number of families rely on women’s earnings, nearly two-thirds of whom are single moms.
It’s not that these mothers aren’t working hard. More than half of low-income single mothers are working full time, according to the Working Poor Families Project report. But they are very likely to work in jobs that don’t pay well and that don’t offer many benefits. Almost half are employed in just 16 occupations, many of which are in the retail and service industries. The biggest percentage are home health aides, where the mean wage is $10 an hour, or about $21,000 a year. Yet the report notes that increasing their access to non-traditional jobs, such as in manufacturing or transportation, “could increase their earnings by at least 30 percent.”
Other policies that could help increase their financial stability would address the lack of benefits in these jobs, such as access to health care and paid time off for sickness or a new child. The U.S. is the only advanced country that doesn’t guarantee that workers can take time off if they or their loved ones fall ill, leaving 40 percent of private sector workers without access to leave, including a full 80 percent of low-income workers. The country is even more lonely when it comes to paid maternity leave, as it is just one of three countries out of 178 that doesn’t guarantee all mothers can take paid time off for the arrival of a new child. Some cities and states have instituted these policies — there are eight that guarantee paid sick leave and three that guarantee paid family leave — but nothing at the federal level.
Another challenge facing these mothers is that they are more likely than wealthier working women to lack educational credentials that can help them get a better job. About 18 percent of women in female-headed, low-income families don’t have a high school diploma, compared to just 5 percent of their higher-income peers. On the other hand, 77 of higher-income working moms had some education beyond high school, compared to 51 percent of low-income moms. The report notes that even for those who have a high school diploma and qualify for post-secondary education, “access can be limited due to a number of factors such as tuition costs, transportation issues and class schedules that conflict with standard working hours.”
A lack of affordable child care can also be a huge barrier to college (as well as to getting to work). The cost of child care continues to rise and is often more than what families typically spend on rent or food. Meanwhile, state aid to help families afford these costs has been on the decline.