Single Mothers and Poverty: A Historical Battle

Image result for tenement housing mother

Poverty has always existed in the United States, however the problems fluctuate as the country progresses. While today’s single mothers experience high social stigma for their poverty and behaviors associated with poverty, poverty during wartime, for example, is less stigmatized because it is a condition of the cultural whole rather than the minority. Consequences were often more physical during the 19th century, for example, than they are today. The Women’s Magazine published two companion articles in 1885 titled, How Poor Working Women Work in Cities and Heroic Poverty. Both discuss the physical effects of poverty, the discrimination showed to low-income women, as well as the labor intensive fields women worked.

Where we now have such high access to utilities and have formed women’s shelters, health clinics, and homeless shelters, the physical side effects of poverty in the mother-headed household have been reduced quite significantly. This is not to say that these consequences do not still remain, but they have been alleviated through various social initiatives, programs, and philanthropy efforts such as government and church organized welfare. The women of the 19th century had significantly less access. As such, rent seemed to be a strainer and the women’s finances liquid. Often, single women would live in with four to six other women paying approximately two dollars for rent. If she had a child, childcare was an extra sixty cents, and this is all assuming that she is making two dollars and forty cents a week. Rent would occasionally be raised a dollar with little notice, and if rent was not paid in advance the room could be let to another tenant – without the woman having any advance notice.

Widowed mothers in particular would be devastated financially due to the loss of their husband. His finances, which often did not lie to her, would leave her penniless as women typically did not work. Especially if the single mother was living, wed, in the middle class, the death of her husband could “deprive [her] of every dollar her husband owned.” Thus she would likely take up being a seamstress, and if her daughter or son was old enough, they would often be sent to work as well. Though she was diligent, her income did not reflect it. It did not help that women in the 19th century were living pre-Triangle Shirtwaist and had little regulation on either their work environment or conditions – that is, if they were to find employment with a company. Hours were extensive, and conditions meager.

The problem was heightened by the tenement housing that existed in the inner cities. Cramped, tiny living spaces were both unhealthy and stressful. While poverty tore her down financially, the emotional cost was high as well, just as it is today. Although modern housing units are not created and organized the way the tenements were, housing remains a problem. By and large, however, the situation in the 19th century was obviously extraordinary in terms of its unsanitary environment.

Poverty has grown and expanded in many ways since the 19th century, but several components have remained the same: unfavorable working and living conditions, inability to make ends meet, and discrimination via gender for women that are in the workplace. The title of the paper, Heroic Poverty, is fitting for women both in the past and present who fight the consuming battle of poverty with children at their hip.


Collins, Jennie : Heroic Poverty.; The Woman’s Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly Devoted to Art, Literature, Biography, Home Science, and Woman’s Work Vol. 8, Iss. 7 (Mar 1885) pg. 212-213.


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