Falling Behind: Single Mothers and Women of Color in the Recession


It’s no secret that families headed by single mothers make up the poorest sector of society in this country. According to the National Poverty Center, the poverty rate for this group is “significantly higher” than the overall poverty rate:

In 2008, 28.7 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 13.8 percent of households headed by single men and 5.5 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty.

Still, we do very little in this country to assist households led by single mothers. Without access to high-quality childcare, mandated paid sick days, paid maternity leave, or equal pay,  it’s extremely difficult for single mothers to ensure their families survive let alone thrive.

The latest numbers – for July –  from the Bureau of Labor Statistics were just released and while it has been generally reported on that unemployment rates have remained unchanged, there are two groups of Americans for whom this is not the case.

The National Women’s Law Center delved deeper into the numbers and found that for both single mothers and women of color in general, the unemployment rates are rising:

Unemployment for women who head families shot up to 13.4 percent in July from 12.1 percent in June. This marks the highest unemployment rate for this particularly vulnerable group since the recession began in December 2007 and the highest rate in over 25 years. [emphasis added]

More single women who are heads-of-households are unemployed right now than have been in a quarter-of-a-century and mainstream media outlets don’t feel the need to report on this?

As is the case with all groups living in poverty, households led by single mothers of color number even greater. Women of color, without children, are also experiencing higher rates of unemployment:

Unemployment among African-American women jumped from 11.8 percent in June to 12.9 percent in July. The situation was similar for Hispanic women, whose unemployment rate increased by 1.1 percentage points to 12.1 percent in July, marking this group’s highest unemployment rate since 1986. [emphasis added]

Again, Hispanic women are experiencing their highest rates of unemployment since 1986 and the discussion seems absent from the larger dialogue on unemployment and the recession.

But why is it important to single out specific groups’ unemployment rates during a recession in which many are being hit hard?

First off, as the National Women’s Law Center blog post about increased Medicaid benefits points out,

“…Congress is cutting necessary food stamp benefits to pay for this relief instead of making investment fund managers pay their fair share of taxes. And we’re worried that this scaled-back package of assistance—which includes only half of the Medicaid and education funds originally sought and doesn’t include any funding for the TANF Emergency Fund, child care, or child support—won’t be enough to strengthen a weak economy.”

What about finally passing legislation like the Healthy Families Act, originally introduced by Senator Ted Kennedy to ensure employees receive at least seven paid sick days per year? Guaranteed paid sick days are crucial to helping single-mother headed households fight the pull of poverty. As Rep. Rosa DeLauro wrote in her blog post, she’s heard from Momsrising.org, sharing (not uncommon) stories like the one about “A single mom who works in childcare and only has three days of paid sick days to use to take care of herself and her young children when they are sick. As a result, she is forced to choose between paying the rent and having enough food in the house.”

Yet Congress is about to embark on a recess without voting on this bill and many others. What is Congress doing to help mothers and their children living in poverty? Though legislators did vote to increase state Medicaid funding “needed to protect women’s health, women’s jobs, and services that women and their families depend upon,” they did so by cutting food-stamp benefits (as noted above) instead of taxing the compensation billionaire investment fund managers receive, at the same rate as other workers, according to the National Women’s Law Center. So, single mothers and their children will see their food stamp benefits sharply decrease because an elite group of extremely wealthy Americans successfully lobbied against raising taxes on their billions of dollars.

And despite President Obama’s endorsement, knowing that women are increasingly relied upon to be the sole financial provider for their families, are still paid inequitably for the work we do simply because of our gender or color of our skin or both, we cannot get Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act which would ensure that women receive equal pay for equal work, raising single mothers’ and their children’s living standards immediately.

If we are not willing to invest in the very programs that will help pull some of our poorest Americans – single mother led households and women of color- out of the spiral, then we are not rebuilding the economy. We are only as strong as our most vulnerable, as the saying goes. To continue a national discussion on unemployment and the recession without acknowledging that our women and children are suffering the most, not because we aren’t able to implement programs and pass legislation like universal, affordable child care, paid sick days, increased food stamp benefits, fair pay standards and more but because we aren’t willing to do so, is something we must own up to and do something about if we are to rise above these hard times and come out stronger than we were when we headed into the recession.

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