Census Bureau: 42.5% of Single Mothers Live in Poverty; 5.4% of Married Ones Do

September 21, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.

There’s nothing new under the sun. Not only that, but in this case the “news” is actually old (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 9/17/14). It seems the U.S. Census Bureau has come out with its data from its American Community Survey for 2013, and to no one’s surprise, American households most likely to live in poverty are single-mother ones with live-in children. The article is about conditions in Wisconsin, but they’re pretty representative of the country generally. Of course, the situation of single mothers is not good.

Four of every 10 single-mother households in Wisconsin with children under age 18 were living in poverty in 2013, according to the latest American Community Survey numbers released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The state’s 42.5% figure is up from 39.4% in 2012, a change the Census Bureau flagged as statistically significant.

The data on single-mother households does not clearly define the role fathers play, including whether they provide child support or have visitation rights. But the survey question does ask respondents to include in their income reporting any unemployment compensation, child support or alimony received.

The American Community Survey is an ongoing survey that samples about 3.5 million addresses a year. The information gathered in the survey helps determine how federal and state funds are distributed.

As in the rest of the nation, over 40% of unmarried women with children and no father present in the household live in poverty and of course their kids do too. As we’ve seen before, the median earnings for those mothers is about $23,000 per year and the American Community Survey data include child support and alimony. In short, that $23k is not what’s earned from paid work, but that, plus all other sources.

Now, neither the article nor apparently the ACS itself is concerned with poverty rates for single fathers, but in the past we’ve learned that it’s about half that of single mothers. At last glance, single fathers earn on average about $36,000 per year.

And what else the article doesn’t mention is the fact that non-custodial fathers are ordered to pay more child support than are mothers and pay more of what they’re ordered to pay. So the explanation for single mothers’ 50% lower earnings does not reside in dads’ failure to pay child support. For one thing, only 28.8% of non-custodial mothers are even ordered to pay child support. Plus, across the board, non-custodial mothers are less likely to pay any of what they owe, less likely to pay all of what they owe and pay a smaller percentage of what they owe than do non-custodial fathers.

As usual, the poverty rate for single mothers is cause for much hand-wringing from all quarters.

The number of single-mother households with children under age 18 living in poverty is a red flag, and an indicator of broader societal issues the state faces, said Magda Peck, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health.

"This report is yet another prod for us to ask: ‘What we are doing to create the conditions for all of Wisconsin’s women and families to live well?’" Peck said Wednesday.

"Poverty is a known significant driver of poor health, compromised educational opportunities and diminished human potential, especially for women and their children."

Women are often paid less for equal work, have less access to higher paying jobs, and are more likely to bear the costs of raising their children, Peck said.

"We also know that women of color and those who reside in cities like Milwaukee experience even higher burdens," she said.

Structural poverty is not a matter of individual choice alone, nor is the solution one of persistent resilience, Peck said.

"It is a matter of fairness and justice," she said. "We have yet another opportunity and obligation to examine the interconnected policies and practices that are keeping women from thriving, families from staying stronger together, and our state from achieving greater prosperity."

Children clearly benefit from having both parents in their life, said Nicole Angresano, vice president community impact for United Way of Greater Milwaukee, the lead agency in a community-wide collaborative called Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families, which is working to eliminate racial disparities in birth outcomes and ensure more babies reach their first birthday.

"There are too many children who don’t have the social support, emotional support, and financial support as we’d like them to have," Angresano said.

Peck of course is wrong when she claims “women are often paid less for equal work.” Every reliable study of the matter indicates that the pay differential between men and women is a result of women’s choosing to work fewer hours than do men and at lower-paying jobs. Studies claiming to back up Peck’s remark tend to ignore the fact that “equal work” is a very slippery subject. So comparing doctors to doctors may seem to provide reliable data, but if some of the doctors are specialists and others are GPs, then the reliability of the comparison is lost. And “equal work” often assumes that “full-time work” compares employees who work the same or similar hours. But “full-time work” is usually defined as 35 hours per week or more. So comparing full-time workers includes those who work 35 hours per week as well as those working 60.

And typically, men are the ones working the longer hours and at the more demanding and thus better paying jobs. The studies Peck relies on often ignore seniority too, once again an area in which men tend to outperform women.

But both women quoted by the article touch on the obvious lynchpin of the problem of single mothers living in poverty. Peck refers to families “staying stronger together,” and Angresano points out that “children clearly benefit from having both parent in in their life.”

There, the data do back them up.

For married couples with children, the poverty rate is 5.4%, a figure that hasn’t changed since 2009.

Ah, comes the dawn. If we were truly interested in getting mothers and their children out of poverty, we’d stop making single-motherhood such an easy choice. To begin with, we’d educate people from early childhood about the benefits to everyone of families staying together. For example, we’d let them in on the comparative data – 42.5% of single mothers live in poverty versus 5.4% of married mothers who do. That fact alone should tell us a lot.

Then of course equal parenting laws would ameliorate a lot of that poverty by freeing mothers to work and earn. Face it, when a parent does between 80 and 86% of the parenting of a child, it doesn’t leave much time to do anything else. And that’s how much parenting time custodial parents typically have with their kids under standard parenting orders. Kids benefit from shared parenting and so do their parents, so the conclusion should be obvious – that equal parenting should be the law of the land. But we’ve become adept at ignoring the obvious.

So if staying married isn’t possible, there’s still a solution to the problem of single-mother poverty if only we’d take advantage of it.

Truly, our divorce and child custody industries are perhaps the single greatest problem we face. The tentacles of broken families reach into all aspects of American life, society and culture, making all of them worse. From heightened crime and drug abuse to poorer educational outcomes to worse physical and mental health to exacerbated poverty and on and on, the damage we do to our families we do to ourselves.

We know this. But powerful interest groups like divorce lawyers and radical feminists doggedly resist change. But we know where we need to go and how to get there. Finally, it’s just a matter of going.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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3 replies on “Census Bureau: 42.5% of Single Mothers Live in Poverty; 5.4% of Married Ones Do”

I doubt this poverty rate has much to do with families breaking up. I’m guessing that thanks to our onerous equitable distribution, alimony, and so-called child support laws, divorced moms are doing pretty well.

These poverty stricken moms are likely never married, young, and decided to have children without the means to pay for them, and then stuck an unfortunate schmuck (dad) and the public with the bill. I suppose we could give the dads more time, but many probably had no interest in being a father to begin with. Who could blame them for not wanting to step up?

Free and widespread availability of contraception, especially the pill, is what we really need for this particular problem.

Almost all single mothers are single mothers by choice and should be responsible for their choices. Most single mothers who are in poverty are not in poverty because they do not receive adequate support (child support) from fathers but because they mismanage their finances and live like pigs at troughs. The problem isn’t single mothers who live in poverty by choice. The real problem is fathers who have been alienated from their children AND forced to pay the mothers for the children who they are not allowed to see or have any meaningful relationship with AND who live in poverty not by their own choice but because of self-serving and irresponsible choices made by the mothers. That’s the real problem that everyone keeps ignoring. There are many more fathers in these circumstances imposed upon them than mothers who live in poverty by their own devices. The mothers made their beds. Now let them sleep in them. The fathers have been left without any choices. They’re the ones who need help.

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