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Single mothers and poverty - part one

undated file photo provided by Army Spc. Alexis Hutchinson shows Spc. Hutchinson and her son, Kamani
undated file photo provided by Army Spc. Alexis Hutchinson shows Spc. Hutchinson and her son, Kamani
AP Photo/Alexis Hutchinson

A riddle: When is the word “single” synonymous with the word “impoverished?”
Answer: When you add “mother” after single.

At least, that’s often the case. While single motherhood doesn’t doom women to a life of poverty, “It does make it much more of a possibility, particularly in a country like ours,” said Karen Christopher, PhD, an associate professor of women's and gender sociology studies at the University of Louisville. Christopher’s main area of research is gender employment and social policy.

A female-lead household is the family form most likely to live in poverty in the U.S. The main reasons behind the statistics have to do with our sources of money, gender inequality in the labor market and a lack of real government support for single mothers, said Christopher.

The first and second reasons go hand-in-hand. Christopher explained, adults get money from three main sources: employment, another person like a spouse or partner, or from the government. For women, the rewards of paid employment aren’t as great as they are for men because there is still a gap in pay. For every dollar a man earns, a woman earns 78 cents.

And for a single woman, no one else is there to chip in. The poverty rate in 2008 for female-headed households was 28 percent, compared to 13 percent of the overall population. Presently, 37 percent of all births are to unmarried women, the highest percentage in our nation’s history, Christopher said.

The third source, government support, isn’t just welfare. “The most generous form of government assistance right now is the earned income tax credit. You have to be working, and the benefits are much higher if you have children. It’s a policy that’s quite popular because it tends to reward work,” Christopher explained.

Welfare, on the other hand, tends be demonized for rewarding women who aren’t working, a point of view Christopher finds problematic “because it assumes taking care of children isn’t working,” she said, adding that there are many misconceptions about welfare. According to Christopher, “the average welfare payment in the U.S. is $450 per month for a family of three.” It’s below $300 a month for a family of three in Kentucky.

Christopher acknowledged the unmarried mother who is likely to be impoverished is different from the unmarried mother who is a “single mother by choice,” a term used to describe women who typically have a college degree and higher level of income and who just haven’t found a partner. Many use artificial insemination and their poverty rates tend to be very low, although they do have a greater likelihood of ending up in poverty than single men or married couples.

Read Part 2 of the Single Mothers and Poverty series on the Louisville Single Woman Examiner page.

Listen to Dr. Karen Christopher discuss how the Shriver Report pertains to Louisville on WFPL's State of Affairs on February 18.


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