If you're a woman raising your kids on your own, then you're definitely not alone: according to the United States Census Bureau, nearly one-quarter of American children now live in a household led by a single mom, making it the second-most-common family living arrangement in the country. The good news is that single parenthood today doesn't quite suffer the same stigma it once did, but the bad news is that single moms are still much more likely to be worse off than, well, pretty much everyone else. That's not an easy problem to tackle, but there are plenty of ways that government policy could improve life for single moms. And these four services single moms in the U.S. need, but don't have, would probably be a good place to start.
There's no question that being a single parent is hard. After all, being a parent in general is hard, even when you have a supportive partner to share the responsibility with. But in general, it's single moms specifically who struggle most. According the Pew Research Center, single dads generally have higher incomes than single moms, and are also much more likely to be cohabiting with a partner — 41 percent of dads vs. only 16 percent of moms — which can help ease the burden.
But it doesn't just come down to income. According to Forbes, 2014 data found that, actually, single mothers earn slightly more on average than married women do, which sounds pretty promising. But compare single mothers' earnings to overall household earnings, and the disparity becomes crystal clear: according to Forbes, the average two-parent family earned more than three times the amount of the average single mother in 2014.
1. Higher Minimum Wage
That's a pretty frustrating statistic to be sure, but what's worse is that while many single mothers in the United States do earn a decent living, an awful lot of single mothers do not. According to the New York Times, women make up 60 percent of minimum wage workers, and 75 percent of workers in the lowest-paid occupations. Add in the fact that, according to MIT's Living Wage Calculator, a single parent with two children earning minimum wage would need to work about 139 hours per work week (that is, the equivalent of three-and-a-half full-time jobs) just to earn a living wage, it's not entirely surprising that about one-third of families headed by a single mom live in poverty.
Discussions of increasing the minimum wage often lead people to concoct images of burger-flipping teenagers getting an underserved financial boost while business owners are forced to take an unfair hit. But the reality is that the single moms working full time in minimum wage jobs simply aren't making enough to support their families, and it's an issue that needs to be addressed.
2. Affordable Child Care
When you're a single parent, paying for child care is going to be an unavoidable expense — you have to work, after all. The problem though (as many parents across the country know all too well) is that child care can be really, really expensive. And when you're on one income that's probably already not enough to begin with? It can be a major financial burden.
Though rates differ depending on where you live, a 2016 report by the Economic Policy Institute found that, in 23 states, the cost of full-time child care for a 4-year-old actually surpassed that of in-state public college tuition, according to TIME. In Massachusetts, child care would run you about $12,781 a year. In Washington, D.C.? It's closer to $17,842.
The Economic Policy Institute notes that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers child care to be affordable if it costs no more than 10 percent of a family’s income. But for many single-parent families, it's much more — meaning that a lack of affordable child care is just one of many ways that single mothers can easily end up stuck in the cycle of poverty or financial insecurity.
3. Better Health Care
It's a hard time to discuss health care in general right now, given the Trump administration's continued efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act. All Americans need access to quality health care they can actually afford, but there's also no denying that being a single mother makes that even more of an issue.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health looked at the health of women in 13 different countries, and found single mothers were more likely to develop a physical disability or experience poor health later in life than those who were married. This included being at a greater risk for heart problems, mental illness, and overall mortality, according to Medical News Today, and out of all the countries studied, the risk was highest for single mothers in the United States, England, Denmark and Sweden. The reasons for the link aren't exactly clear, but given the additional stress and challenges single mothers face — especially when poverty is added into the mix — it's also not particularly surprising.
4. Paid Maternity Leave
By now, this seems like it should be a no-brainer, but sadly, it isn't — not even close. While almost all developed nations offer mothers paid leave and job protection after welcoming a child — with many offering at least a year, according to The Huffington Post — the United States lags majorly behind, guaranteeing only 12 weeks of unpaid leave, and only to those who qualify (many don't). The result? According to The Washington Post, a 2015 report analyzing data from the Department of Labor found that as many as 1 in 4 new mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth (just let that sink in).
That's an outrage for all mothers to be sure, but when you're a single mom on top of that, it's especially unacceptable. Studies have shown that returning to work too soon after giving birth can have a big impact on a woman's health even if they have the financial and emotional support that being in a partnership often brings. When a single mom goes back to work too soon after birth, it means she probably hasn't had enough chance to properly recover (especially if she's been taking care of a baby solo), and it means she likely has to incur the significant cost of child care for a young infant — not to mention that she has to single-handedly navigate the common feelings of sadness and guilt that often go along with not having enough time to bond with your child or properly adapt to new motherhood.
For the benefit of all moms, but single moms in particular, paid maternity leave needs to happen.
To be fair, there are lots of different circumstances that lead to women becoming single moms, and it would be totally inaccurate to assume that all single mothers have the same needs (there is plenty of overlap between the needs of single moms and of married/coupled moms, too). The takeaway shouldn't be that we should all feel bad for single moms, or that they all have a hard time. But it should be that there is a lot of evidence clearly suggesting that being a single mother means a woman is much more likely to have additional obstacles in her way that she doesn't deserve. And it seems to be far past time that changed.
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