It’s early morning and single mother Sophia wakes up and begins getting ready for her day. Her two young children are still sleeping, so she sits for a ten-minute meditation before doing anything else. Sophia learned to do this at work during group breaks and she liked it so much she fit it into her morning routine.
As the sun begins to rise through her kitchen window, Sophia brews coffee and makes oatmeal. She hears her kids stirring and goes to greet them. They go through their typical morning routine and pile into the car. Even though one of her kids is school-aged, Sophia doesn’t need to take him to school and then drop her preschooler off at daycare like so many other single mothers, instead, she takes them all to her workplace. Sophia’s son will get a bus to school later and her daughter, the preschooler, will stay in the on site daycare at Sophia’s workplace.
After getting her kids settled, Sophia goes into the design studio, where she and a group of other workers, many of whom are also single-mothers, are working on a new design for a popular product line.
Before Sophia started working here, she was in an abusive marriage. When she left with only a suitcase and her children, she found herself homeless, jobless, and moneyless. She was able to stay with some friends and get food stamps (SNAP) and cash assistance from the state (TANF), which helped, but it wasn’t enough. She completed the work search requirements for receiving TANF and finally found a full-time, minimum-wage job.
Sophia knew that she couldn’t stay with her friends for too much longer, but her pay was too low to afford a place of her own, so Sophia found a second job delivering pizza in her own car. She would work evenings and weekends and take her kids with her, even though she wasn’t supposed to, because she couldn’t afford the extra childcare.
Finally, Sophia and her kids were able to move out into their own one-bedroom apartment, but the constant and relentless work of childcare and low-paying jobs was beginning to wear on Sophia. Her kids were starting to act out because they were constantly being carted around in the car when they should have been doing homework or playing outside. Sophia’s oldest started to fall behind in school and her youngest got so many behavioral reprimands that she was expelled from her daycare.
After losing childcare for her daughter, Sophia had to miss a week of work. She had no sick leave, paid time off, vacation, or family leave, so she lost wages for that whole week, which meant that some of her bills wouldn’t be paid on time. Sophia was so stressed out by the time she found replacement care for her daughter that she got sick and missed more work. Not only did she lose wages, she was then let go for being too unreliable. Sophia still had her part-time pizza delivery job, but there was no way she could cover her costs on just that.
Sophia wasn’t able to get on unemployment because she had been fired. Luckily, she had diligently saved up just enough money to pay the rent for one more month, but things were looking bad. Her part-time pizza job just couldn’t cut it.
Sophia went to the local employment service where she hoped the employment specialists could help her. They helped her improve her resume, find job search resources, and prepare for interviews. That’s when she discovered the Women’s Work Creative Community a social enterprise.
Women’s Work was a different kind of workplace. There was onsite childcare and on-the-job training for those who needed it. There were group-led wellness initiatives and leadership trainings for employees. Everyone would break in the middle of the day for a “family lunch” where the children and the employees would eat together and discuss projects, ideas, and ways in which things could be changed or improved inside and outside of the company.
Once Sophia started working at Women’s Work, she started earning a living wage and got sick leave, vacation, retirement, and healthcare benefits. She even became a member-owner of the collective, so that she could share in the company’s profits. Sophia was able to quit her second job and the on-site social worker at Women’s Work helped her find resources to help her children do better in school and the daycare. The company’s wellness initiatives helped her learn to eat healthier without spending a fortune and she started to learn better stress management with mindfulness techniques. Sophia loved working at Women’s Work because after trying a number of different jobs, they placed her in the position that she both liked best and was the best at, which was designing and manufacturing ceramics.
It used to be that Sophia was always tired and stressed out, she yelled at her kids a lot and had low self-esteem. But now, she felt more confident in her abilities and she wasn’t so worried about just barely being able to support herself and her kids with no help from their dad, who was now entirely out of the picture. She felt like she and her kids were a part of a big family and that work wasn’t a burden, but a joy. Work and life outside of work didn’t seem like such separate entities, the lines were blurred, but in the best way possible. Sophia’s work was doing what it was meant to do – provide for her and her children at a level that allowed them to not just survive, but to thrive.
The above scenario is fictional, but wouldn’t it be nice if this story of success were the rule instead of the exception?
Our single mother, Sophia, struggled under circumstances that for the most robust and skilled of people would have been an incredible challenge. It wasn’t until she found a unique workplace that was designed to actually support her and her children, so that she could be at her best as an employee, that she was finally able to ascend from struggle and poverty and into self-reliance and self-actualization. Sophia and her children no doubt had better lives because a single business chose to be the answer to a problem by providing its workers with real opportunities to make a better living instead of focusing only on the bottom line.
Sophia’s challenges before finding Women’s Work are not uncommon for single mothers in America, were social services are light and living-wage jobs are scant.
The US has been losing its middle class over the past 30 years and living wage jobs with it. Social safety nets like welfare have also been severely cut, often leaving single moms in a difficult situation.
In 1996, President Clinton signed in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, also known as the Welfare Reform Act, which replaced the original welfare program known as, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). This reform ushered in TANF or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the cash assistance program that Sophia received. Single mothers like Sophia were the primary recipients of welfare at the time of reform, and they were the ones most affected by these changes.
After welfare reform, women were expected to either meet educational or work search requirements to receive benefits. The assumption was that working would lift these mothers out of poverty. However, in order for single mothers to be stable in the workforce, they need, in addition to a living wage, reliable and affordable childcare, transportation, housing, healthcare, paid leave and much, much more. Most employers do not offer these kinds of benefits, especially for the minimum-wage jobs that many single moms end up having to take.
Affordable childcare is an especially difficult barrier to single mothers being successful in the workforce. As we can see in Sophia’s case, having to juggle two jobs and caring for her children created a situation so stressful that ultimately led to her losing childcare and then her job. This is the opposite of what the government wants to see happen. Childcare is incredibly expensive all over the country and in some cases quality childcare is hard to come by. Nationally, the cost of infant care in a center averages over 40% of the state median income of single mothers. In some states, like Oregon, a single mother with a 0 – 3-year-old would consume half of her income to pay for full-time care at a childcare center. While childcare subsidies are available in some states, many of them have wait lists or have frozen their intakes for assistance. In these cases, wait times can range from 90 days to two years, an impossible situation to navigate when the need to work is immediate.
Considering all this, many single mothers have continued to struggle with poverty since welfare reform went into effect.
In 2013, 84% of single parent homes were headed by mothers and about 45% or just over two-fifths of those single mothers lived in poverty. Despite this, only 10 percent of them received TANF, while 45.8% received food stamps. None of the 50 States offer cash benefits above 50% of the Federal poverty line, some offer even less. In Washington State, the monthly stipend is $425 for a family of two, not even close to enough for rent and bills or any other major costs of living. There is no way a mother like Sophia could realistically support her family on funds from TANF.
Even in the workforce, single moms have it hard. Two-thirds of single mothers worked outside of the home in 2016, more than married mothers. Only half of these single mothers who were working had full-time, year-long, positions. Forty percent of employed single parents in the US work in low-wage jobs, so poverty is an ongoing problem for many of them. With earning power for white single women being 78¢ to a man’s $1, single mothers are at a huge disadvantage as sole breadwinners for their families. It’s even worse for African-American and Hispanic women who average 64¢ and 56¢ to the dollar, respectively. The average yearly income for single mothers is $26K which is almost four times less than the average for married families is $84K. Despite efforts to increase the collection of child support payments since 1996, only one-third of single mothers receive child support, which averages out at only $430 per month. (See more stats at www.singlemotherguide.com)
Basically Clinton’s welfare reform shifted responsibility for single mothers from the government to a workforce that was not set up to provide them with the things that they needed to succeed. It turned welfare into “workfare.” In this way, both the government and the workforce have failed single-mothers since 1996.
Single mothers, who often have limited social support or access to necessary resources, are expected to miraculously manifest resources and supports all on their own, all while they perform the tasks of parenting and domestic labor required for maintaining a household. Childrearing is an incredibly demanding, full-time endeavor, especially when children are small. Having to provide for a household and be, in some cases, the only parent is a massive task to undertake.
“As a single parent, I find myself trying to comply with two incompatible demands by society: 1) be a good mother and, 2) not be a leech and earn a living. So I do both in a compromised way. It is extremely difficult to be a good mother when you do not have enough money to do the job. It is extremely difficult to earn a living when you are trying to competently raise healthy children.”
Under the current system, single-mothers must work if they are to launch themselves out of poverty, but all too often, the odds are stacked against them. If they lack education or experience, their options for good-paying work are limited. If they live in an economically challenged area, there may be no jobs. If they or their children have health problems, their ability to work is compromised.
The workforce, as it is set up, takes no responsibility for the welfare of single-parent families. In fact, in most cases, it takes no care for families at all. Most companies do little to help with childcare costs or healthcare and they certainly don’t offer maternity or family leave.
The cost to society of keeping people in poverty is much higher than it would be if we collectively lifted them out of it. These costs aren’t always monetary. A healthy society thrives on healthy people. Healthy people are born out of safe and secure situations, where basic needs are met and healthy attachments are made. In order to create such situations, single-mothers need opportunities to either make enough money to clothe, house, feed, and offer growth opportunities to their children or they need access to social welfare that will supplement them at a level that they can actually provide these things.
If the US doesn’t want to support single-mothers through social welfare programs, then businesses need to take up the slack. We need businesses that pay people living wages and that pay men and women the same wage for the same work. We need businesses that offer maternity leave and safe places for mothers to either breastfeed or pump for their babies. We need businesses that care about their workers and offer them opportunities for growth and advancement. We need businesses that help with childcare costs, or better yet, have onsite childcare.
If we are going to expect single moms to work, compensation for that work needs to actually meet their needs. We can launch billions of initiatives to encourage abstinence (which doesn’t work) and the preservation of marriage (both things included in the Welfare Reform Act), but these efforts will not help the 10 million single mothers who are currently living in poverty today. Single mothers are here and they are here to stay. So let’s start creating opportunities for single mothers, knowing that if we do so, we will not only be helping them individually, but we will be helping ourselves on a broader scale. We will be creating more security for the children of these mothers, and these children will grow into adults who had better access to food, shelter, and education. When they grow up, these children will be better equipped to contribute to society, having lived lives outside of poverty.
America is supposed to be the greatest country in the world. How, then, can we stand back and watch so many people labor under situations that are essentially designed to keep them down? The American Dream and bootstrapping are tired old fallacies that deserve to be dashed in favor of pragmatic moves on the part of both business and government, which could truly serve to improve the lives of the most marginalized.
Thankfully, there is a trend in business, where being socially responsible is prized. More and more young entrepreneurs are looking at business as an opportunity to solve social problems and not just a pathway to personal enrichment.
Single mothers and their children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, and we need to begin taking collective responsibility for their well-being. We need businesses that aim to solve the problem of poverty in single mothers. We need to bring Sophia and Women’s Work out of the dream realm and into reality.
If single mothers have to work, let’s give them work that actually provides them with a pathway to a better life.