Single Mothers in Poverty: Stressors and Coping Mechanisms

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The economic effects of poverty are the most apparent and transparent. There are many social and financial reasons behind the poverty levels of single mothers such as the wage gap, legislation resulting in institutional discrimination, and childcare (to name a few). Less obvious are the psychological effects that result from the compounding stresses of poverty and motherhood, however these may be some of the most important.

Motherhood in itself professes to be a very stressful occupation. Even considering the idea that there are individual lives dependent upon your own places added pressure on every day activities like work, cooking, and education. Stressors in this case are defined as a relationship with an aspect of your environment that exceeds resources and endangers well being. When we discussed social capital, for instance, this is regarded as a resource that women have or do not have access to. Like economic capital, it is a fluctuating resource of which different amounts can be obtained. Social capital, economic capital, emotional capital, cultural capital, and institutional capital are all limited resources to the poor, working single mother. The depletion of these resources then breaks down walls of familial structures and psychological well being. Thus, women whose marriage is characterized by economic constraint and poverty are more likely to divorce, and women who are either unwed or who have experienced a divorce are more apt to declare limited amounts of economic, social, and emotional resources.

Considering each of these capitals as a stressor, it is easy to see how they may be compounded. Responses to these stressors vary between individuals, but the general pattern of coping with overwhelming stress, like the kind characterized by compounding effects of poverty, is the same. When a stressor is introduced, it is evaluated, a response formulated, and the response applied. There are two defined types of coping that we will use for our purposes: problem focused coping and emotion focused coping. Problem focused coping is centered in a belief that the current situation may be changed by personal efforts; emotion focused coping is the perception that the situation is beyond personal control and thus we revert to coping internally. Problem focused coping presents solutions, while emotion focused coping presents stability.

Let’s discuss some of the stressors that poor single mothers face. It is difficult and likely impossible to create a comprehensive list of the stressors that a poor single mother would experience – particularly because the stressors we will discuss here do not address race or varied personal trials, both of which compound the stress further. However, as a broad selection of stressors we may include childcare stress, economic stress in providing for the children and oneself, social support and capital, educational opportunities, employment, health problems, and stigmas. Many single mothers experience at least one of these, while most single mothers experience a wide variety and some experience all of these. At the introduction of multiple stressors, familial roles and boundaries begin to be compromised. Physical health disorders such as immune deficiencies, hypertension, and obesity begin to increase. Emotional and mental health also begins to be compromised.

With heightened degrees of depression and other mental illnesses caused by the overwhelming stress, it becomes more difficult to implement either problem focused or emotion focused coping because both require a degree of energy that is currently being expended (and often depleted) on Maslow’s hierarchy. Depression is twice as high among poor women as it is for middle or upper class women. Social capital may also play a role in middle class women’s’ ability to cope successfully, however even if low income women have access to social support, support given by family and friends can occasionally be construed as unsupportive, thus further damaging the individual in need. Lack of social support and economic hardship are the highest contributing factors to depression.

Single mothers often have limited access to the workplace due to responsibilities in the home as well as limited access to childcare, perpetuating economic stressors. Limited social capital reduces access to basic daily needs and the stress of social stigma can also increase fear of rejection in single mothers seeking support. Although coping strategies exist psychologically, they are often not effective in translating to productive change, particularly as overwhelming stress reduces mental health significantly. Coping strategies, therefore, are overall ineffective due to their inability to address basic physical and emotional needs.


Broussard, C. Anne, Alfred L. Joseph, and Marco Thompson. “Stressors and Coping Strategies Used by Single Mothers Living in Poverty.” Affilia: Journal Of Women & Social Work 27, no. 2 (May 2012): 190-204. Women’s Studies International, EBSCOhost (accessed December 3, 2016).


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