Why Single Mothers Are In Economic Crisis And What Can Be Done About It

The new report from Pew on modern parenthood is filled with important data about how Americans are handling a variety of work and family issues. Reading through the report, the most glaring conclusion for progressives is that unmarried mothers are in dire financial straits, facing much worse economic conditions than most other people in America. Look at this table:

A full 61 percent of unmarried mothers report income of less than $30,000 per year. In contrast, a roughly similar proportion (62 percent) of married mothers report family incomes of $50,000 or more annually. What does this mean for single mothers? As this chart highlights, it means the recession really crushed them and they need decent-paying, full-time jobs:

Nearly half of unmarried mothers in 2012 said that their ideal situation would be to work full time (49 percent) — almost double the percentage from 2007 (26 percent). The percentage of married mothers reporting a desire for full time work also increased but at a much lower rate (23 percent in 2012 vs. 17 percent in 2007). Pew also finds that among working moms, “there is a significant gap between those who are married and unmarried in terms of the value they place on having a high-paying job. Only 26 percent of those who are married say this is extremely important to them personally, while 39 percent of those who are unmarried say having a high paying job is extremely important.”

Analyzing the American Time Use Survey data from 2003–2011, Pew shows exactly what this means in terms of the income of unmarried mothers (in the table below). The average weekly earnings of single mothers was about $400 per week in 2011 dollars and even lower for unmarried but cohabiting mothers (about $334 per week). In contrast, women in all other family situations reported higher weekly incomes: women with no young children ($481 a week); married mothers who are sole family earners ($732 a week); and married mothers in dual income families ($676 a week for their earnings plus another $1000 from their husbands).

A variety of factors including age and region and such contribute to these income differentials. Although we can’t tell exactly from this table why these trends are true, the education stats are striking. The percentage of single and cohabiting mothers with college degrees (15.2 percent and 8.2 percent, respectively) is roughly half that of their female counterparts in other family situations, excluding the unemployed.

So unmarried mothers desperately need good-paying, full-time jobs but they don’t have the educational attainment to qualify for higher paying work — or, unfortunately, the time and support and resources to get the education necessary to get the good jobs. Breaking this cycle for unmarried mothers — and their children — should be a top priority for progressives.