Single Mothers and Education: the Educated Working Class

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Problems with education among the poor, particularly poor women, has been a problem for decades. Even as far back as 1840, there was encouragement among the middle-upper class to educate their girls, however the poor seemed to be neglected both in finances and opportunities for education. The fact that this pattern has existed not only in present day but throughout the formation of our country is evidence that redlining and educational funding is not the only problem – it is a matter of stigma that devalues the education of low income women and stereotypes certain occupations as “low income” or menial. One example of this is teaching; if you were ever to watch Matilda, you would notice that Ms. Honey, Matilda’s beloved teacher, was a low income single woman who was unappreciated by larger society. It is a pattern that existed in 1840, and it is a pattern that exists today.

There was a religious appeal to emphasizing women’s education, particularly low income women’s education during this time. Reverend Pierce, the author of this particular article, references the Savior’s teachings in the New Testament to prove the point that man ought to call upon the poor and the maimed when there is bounty. The economy and educational opportunity, in this case, is the bounty. Traditionally, education had been viewed as a middle-upper class regiment to round out the mannerisms and intellect of well-off young women. The fallacy in this situation is that education, as we have discussed, is the most progressive form of human capital and thus is needed most by those in low income homes or situations. In a heavily Christian nation, this religious argument, particularly if coming from a Reverend, acted as a call to repentance.

Reverend Pierce calls education “mental and moral wealth”. His comments are deeply appropriate as we consider the modern knowledge we have of women’s coping strategies and mechanisms while dealing with the overwhelming stress of poverty. Indeed, education serves as human capital and our investment in it multiplies the wealth. An increase in education would likely improve coping mechanisms by, at the very least, improving the ability to problem-focus cope. Although it is certain that education cannot resolve or fix clinical mental health issues that are brought on by compounded stressors, it may be able to alleviate stress by giving the mother a great resource of human capital that will not deplete as quickly.

Funding, however, was an issue then just as it is now. One solution given in this article is to call upon organizations and individuals to assist in giving “benevolent education” through charity. Scholarships and grants are made available today to individuals who are struggling financially to incur an education, and independent studies or online programs are also being made readily available. In one sense, we could consider these forms of modern “benevolent education”. The fallacy in this statement, however, is that it does not account for women who have little to no access to the internet or who are uneducated on how to become educated. In instances of single motherhood, especially, it negates time constraints between work and children. A wonderful friend of mine from Houston, Texas just recently experienced a divorce and posted online that her schedule consisted of full time work, school at night, and parenting three children. She expressed feelings of overwhelming exhaustion and worry about financial stability. Her concerns are real, and they are felt by many women who would like to receive an education but feel burdened by time, the stress of raising children, and work.

In one sense, I think Pierce has found a brilliant solution to a tender and enduring problem with our country’s educational system – retrench expenses (his idea was through independent organizations, today we appeal to the government at federal, state, and local levels) to be distributed toward education and educate low-income women to be educators. In doing so, we are opening job markets and at the very least are helping to sustain low-income schools with teachers who have been trained and certified, throwing a cog in the system of recyclable poverty. Problems still remain in providing single mothers with opportunities for higher education as we must recognize that there are many other factors, aforementioned, that prevent women from feeling the confidence and security to be able to attend school while coping with children, work, and financial and emotional stress. However, the further we are able to increase spending in education, we will be assisting in alleviating a problem that has existed amongst America’s poor since the 19th century.



L Pierce : The education of the poor; The Magnolia, or, Southern Apalachian [sic] : a literary magazine and monthly review. Vol. 1, Iss. 4 (1840) pg. 222-229.


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