Poverty, single mothers and race/ethnicity

Confusing the facts with the issues.

The other day I picked on the Heritage Foundation’s post, “Poverty Explodes, Root Cause Is the Collapse of Marriage.” In that post, they conclusively demonstrated two things: first, that children of single parents are more likely to be poor; and second, that more children are born to unmarried parents now than in the past. The dots they didn’t connect were between family structure and the child-poverty “explosion.”

In the comments on the post, Jay Livingtson reasonably asked, “Why didn’t he add a line showing rates of child poverty to show that it tracks with the Death of Marriage?”, and Wanda pointed out, “I don’t see that you refuted the information in any way.” I didn’t empirically refute the ideological claim of the HF guy because I didn’t show the relationship between child poverty and single-parenthood.

Looking at the graph below, which Jay asked for, the intellectual-history reason seems clear — his is an old collapsing-society story, that hasn’t been in the news much because the association broke down in the 1980s, when the news was all about single parents, crack, homicide, and welfare. Ten years ago I used to assign this book by Ruth Sidel, which put it all together very nicely.) She

shows how America, in its search for a post-Cold War enemy, has turned inward to target single mothers on welfare, and how politicians have scapegoated and stigmatized female-headed families both as a method of social control and to divert attention from the severe problems that Americans face. She reveals the real victims of poverty–the millions of children who suffer from societal neglect, inferior education, inadequate health care, hunger, and homelessness.

Anyway, it was fashionable in the 1990s to line up the trend toward unmarried parenting with any other time series showing things getting worse. You can see why they don’t do that so much any more:

Source: My graph from the Census Bureau’s poverty and living arrangements data. These are spreadsheet files — (if you think I’m messing with the data, feel free to show me another interpretation — I’ll post it here.)*

The rise in child poverty in the1970s and early 1980s did not persist, while the single-parent living situation kept going up (similarly, crack-use and homicide declined, too). It looks like the culprits after the 1980s are recessions, and the improvement is concentrated in the miracle 1990s, driven by some combination of economic growth, the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and welfare reform forcing single mothers to “work.”

Of course, single parents are still more likely to live in poverty. One thing I liked about the old welfare system was that at least it gave some money to poor people. But that was then.

For a recent review of the facts and policies around single parents, welfare, and poverty, I recommend an article in the 2010 Annual Review of Sociology by Sandra Danziger. Since it’s behind a pay wall, I’ll fair-use a couple of the figures for you here.

This figure shows only single mothers ages 18-54 with only high school diplomas or less education. The economic boom and/or radical reforms are apparent in the late 1990s, as these mothers increased their employment rates while falling drastically off welfare. (The economic boom theory is bolstered by the rise in “no work/no welfare” and the downward slide of employment after 2000. )

The next figure is for those who thought I didn’t do enough with race/ethnicity last time. This figure nicely shows both the trends in child poverty rates and the inequalities by race/ethnicity.

In particular, several readers of the Sociological Images repost of a figure I did on income-to-needs distributions thought it a problem that I had neglected to include Asians. I did that because of my view that they are not well captured in the Current Population Survey (CPS), too small and diverse and geographically concentrated in ways that intersect with national origin and mess up the sampling. (For example, they are very concentrated in places with high incomes and costs of living, like Hawaii and parts of the West.) Anyway, Asian child poverty is on here since the mid-1980s. My skepticism about the data is reinforced by the big blips around the Decennial Census years of 1990 and 2000, when the statistical weights in the CPS are adjusted to reflect the more accurate national count.

*The drop in single parents in 2007 reflects a change in the definition: before 2007 Census only identified one parent, then reported there were two parents if that person was married. Now they identify two parents whether or not they are married. So instead of “single parents” for 2007 forward, it is really counting “one parent.”

7 thoughts on “Poverty, single mothers and race/ethnicity

  1. Please feel free to post the following article on your website and contact SWASMO:

    SWASMO: Helping Swaziland’s most vulnerable women to help themselves

    by Peter Kenworthy, Africa Contact

    Swaziland is a country of great inequality where a minority is rich whilst two-thirds of the population survives on less than a dollar a day, half of them going hungry. As in most countries in the world, women bear the heaviest burdens of such inequality because, amongst other things, of their lower social and legal status and subsequent lack of access to education and finances. Women are generally heavily discriminated against in Swaziland, both legally and culturally, even though the country’s new constitution promises equal treatment for women and though Swaziland is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). One group of women that is particularly vulnerable, stigmatised and prone to despair and despondency is that of single mothers, including teenage mothers – although the two are often interconnected as one of the main causes of single motherhood is early pregnancies.

    Unfortunately, little has been done by the Swazi authorities to improve the conditions of single and teenage mothers and no organisation in Swaziland have until recently focused specifically on this group. Single mothers and teen mothers receive no government aid or grants in Swaziland and receive little or no help from their families or communities, even though teenage mothers account for over a third of all pregnancies in Swaziland. On the contrary, when they are found to be pregnant they are often expelled from school and ostracised and stigmatised by their neighbours, communities and families. The psychological stress that is the obvious result of their situation often leads them to acts of desperation, and abortion (which is illegal in Swaziland) and infanticide are widespread. Studies have furthermore shown that children born by single mothers in Swaziland are more likely to develop developmental and behavioural disabilities, and their mother’s financial situation often ensures that they continue a vicious cycle of poverty and little or no education.

    Apart from being related to poverty because of social factors such as the collapse of the social security of the extended families due to AIDS and urban migration, and the fact that women are mostly in unskilled or informal sector jobs if at all, the reason for the particular vulnerability of this group is also related to discriminatory cultural or customary practices. These practices include a general dependency upon husbands or fathers due to traditional laws that treat women as minors by stipulating that they cannot own land or property or open a bank account without the acceptance of their husband. In Swaziland, status for women comes with marriage, childbirth outside marriage is generally frowned upon, and patriarchal attitudes that specifically target single and teenage mothers have become internalised.

    Swaziland Single Mothers’ Organisation (SWASMO) is a small but competent organisation of volunteers qualified in the areas of community development, social work, and public health that have decided to try and rectify all this by initially mobilising and educating poor single mothers in the poorest areas of Manzini, the main industrial town, to become self-reliant, self-aware and healthy. The organisation was founded in January 2009 on the idea that each human being has the potential of improving her life regardless of her gender or marital status and with the vision of ensuring the health of young single mothers and preventing teen pregnancies. Education about these matters is especially important as information from parents and the communities on sexual matters is notably lacking in Swaziland, as is sex education in schools, because the discussion of sexually related issues is simply not seen as acceptable. Subsequently, nearly 80% of Swazi girls are sexually active by the age of sixteen and many of these girls become pregnant at an equally early age.

    SWASMO’s projects include self-help groups that aim to enable the group members to claim their rights and to empower them financially, emotionally and health-wise as well as to ensure a sense of ownership, mental and financial self-reliance, and mutual support. “We use a holistic approach to help our clients”, says Beatrice Bitchong, SWASMO’s programme coordinator and founder. “This includes social, psychological, economical, health and human rights education. In this way single mothers and teen mothers are empowered to stand and claim their rights.” More concretely the projects incorporate income generating projects and education on agricultural skills, management, sexual matters such as contraception, and family planning. The income generating projects include the making of clothes and scarves, handy craft items and a vegetable garden. SWASMO also trains the group members in facilitation skills to ensure that the project can eventually continue without outside help, and its projects are participatory in nature. “We use the participatory approach in all our programmes – community work, group work or case work – and we involve the beneficiaries of the programme in all the processes from planning, implementation and evaluation of projects”, says Beatrice Bitchong. SWASMO also offers individual and group counselling, home visits, and food and clothes support.

    According to Beatrice Bitchong, the projects have “seen a considerable improvement in the lives of the members”, and the organisation that started out with a single group of 20 single mothers is well on its way to increasing this number to a target of at least 80.

    Initially, SWASMO has had to rely on money from its volunteers to enable a pilot project that gave valuable insight into the needs of the target group and served as an inspiration for the future outline of the projects. There are other organisations in Swaziland that have proven that a little money in Swaziland can go a long way and much can be achieved on a low budget, however. That initially small organisations, run by strong-minded women, are able to make a huge impact in a relatively short time-span is proven by the success of Swaziland for Positive Living (SWAPOL), an organisation that seeks to improve the awareness and living conditions of people who are affected by or infected with HIV in the rural areas, many of whom are women, through counselling and education. Beatrice Bitchong cites Siphiwe Hlope, SWAPOL’s strong-willed director, as a major influence in the work of SWASMO. “I admire her passion, her hard work and her outspoken style. I saw her organization going from strength to strength everyday and it is just inspiring.” Beatrice Bitchong insists that SWASMO would like to be able to make a similar impact by eventually having programmes nationwide that offer for instance vocational training and health-related home visits to pregnant teenage mothers, as well as to have the capacity to influence public awareness and policy-makers on the plight of single mothers in Swaziland by way of campaigns.

    If possible, boys and men should also be included in some sort of educational project as there is obviously also a need for them to be educated in sexual and reproductive matters, as well as to discuss their responsibilities as fathers. As it is now many of them simply leave the mothers alone with the child, also because there is no legal obligation for them to aid the mother in any way. “Men, just as society in general, need to be involved in women’s rights,” says Beatrice Bitchong, “which is why education on women rights issues should form part of the civic education of the community starting at primary school.”

    Attending to all this means employing permanent staff that will enable SWASMO to grow by advertising its presence through posters, radio, and pamphlets. But SWASMO needs financial support to do so, which is why the organisation intends to try and find international donors or sympathetic organisations or individuals to aid its projects.

    The message for such donors is that this cause is both a righteous and a winnable one. That it is possible to advance the cause of gender equality in nations that discriminate against women, even for cultural outcasts such as teenage mothers and single mothers in Swaziland, is proven by the experiences of the Western nations that also discriminated both culturally and legally against women until quite recently. The advancement of the cause of women here was due to the championing of women’s rights by a few determined women and women’s organisations and NGO’s, as well as an interchanging process of an improved rights-based consciousness that slowly came to encompass women, the economic advancement of women, and legislative reform – all matters that organisations such as SWASMO and SWAPOL are attempting to pursue. It has also been proven more concretely in the case of teenage mothers a little closer to home. Zambia has a similar pattern of increasing teenage pregnancies but has recently enacted a re-entry policy that gives financial support and thereby enables more than a third of Zambia’s single mothers to stay in school. This support is combined with sexual education, counselling and career guidance, as well as the more implied, but no less important, support of having your government openly support you. Swaziland could definitely learn something here.

    As for us in the West, what we must do in accordance with our own relative progress on issues of women’s rights is not to try and dictate the pace of the cause of these organisations by focusing mainly on equality and discrimination, as is largely done in attempting to end discrimination against women in the West, but to listen to the women in countries such as Swaziland when they talk of the interrelation of these matters with developmental and social issues. “Only the empowerment of women in knowledge, skills, and socio-economical matters will increase women’s awareness of the factors contributing to their unfavourable situation and drive them to take action themselves,” insists Beatrice Bitchong. “For a sustainable change in women’s conditions to take place, Swazi women need to be empowered. The role of the international community and international NGO’s should therefore be oriented as much as possible towards initiatives both locally and internationally that can contribute to the empowerment of women in areas of knowledge, skills, and the socio-economic sphere”.


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