So far in our series of discussions on single mothers in poverty, we have covered various reasons why the wage gap exists as well as its effects on women both physically and emotionally, but we have yet to discuss how single mothers compare to single fathers. Karen Kramer, the primary author of this particular study, contrasted the consequences of children as well as the consequences of children and public institutions on single mothers as opposed to single fathers.
As Farber/Miller-Cribbs were cited earlier, pregnancy is a high risk behavior for both men and women, but significantly more so for women than for men. Kramer, in her analysis found economic evidence for this point – single mothers were penalized for having more children, while fathers were not. Not only did the cost of living increase for single mothers, but they generally begin making less money per new child as well. Single fathers, on the other hand, generally increase their income for each additional child. This vacillation in income is problematic, particularly as women are making on average sixty percent less than the wages men make. According to Kramer, single mothers can better their standings on the poverty line by working full time; the problem, however, is that gender roles and custody laws, as well as the love a mother has for their child, dictate that more time should be spent at home with baby, and less time spent in the work field.
These norms have developed since Colonial times and were particularly heightened during the 1950s to form an expectation that women are nurturers and caretakers. The expectation that women are the primary ‘love-givers’ of the home places additional pressure on women who struggle to bring in enough income to sustain themselves and their children. The cost of child care, which we have already discussed increases proportionally to the decrease of woman’s income, adds to the problem both economically and socially. In cases of divorce, custody will generally always fall to the mother, except in extraneous circumstances, which means the single mother will be with the child for the majority of the time. In cases of unwed pregnancies where the mother keeps the child (that this is a choice is a more modern notion), the father is typically fairly absent. Women then are more likely to be viewed as the sole parent, giving her fewer leniencies in gender roles as a single father and limiting her choices in terms of work and education.
Institutionally, work and education also do less to affect a woman’s economic standing than it does for men. Past experiences with work and higher education generally serve to increase a man’s economic standing, while women’s past work experience does little to affect theirs. In addition to the wage gap issue, human capital (or capabilities, talents, skills, and traits that result from investments in health, education, training, and workforce experience) tend to be lower in women than men. When we start to consider that many single mothers may work part time in order to fulfill responsibilities with their children in the home, we recognize that access to benefits such as health insurance or paid leave decreases and limits women’s agency. Compounded with this is the fact that single mothers are often not protected by Social Security due to their being unemployed and unmarried or divorced. Governmental institutions, then, are not in their favor and trying to double as both the mother and the father, a single mother has additional expected duties that a single father is not expected to have.
The single parent household contributes heavily to the persistence of modern poverty. As divorce rates, delaying of marriage, and unwed pregnancies increase, so do the number of single parent homes. Single mothers are particularly affected due to social pressures to fill the roles of both mother and father, and societal institutions such as Social Security and education are not in women’s’ favor. The result of these compounded pressures is a working single mother that is three times more likely than a single father to find herself in the crisis category of poverty and ten percent more likely to find herself in a single parent situation than a father. Efforts to increase the minimum wage or providing benefits to part time workers may in part help to assist these struggling single mothers.
Kramer, Karen, et al. “Comparison of Poverty and Income Disparity of Single Mothers and Fathers Across Three Decades: 1990-2010.” Gender Issues 33, no. 1 (March 2016): 22-41. Women’s Studies International, EBSCOhost (accessed December 3, 2016).