The Happy Mother and Poverty Data

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There is a sculpture in the lobby of the Hubert Humphrey building in Washington, D.C. (home to the United States Department of Health and Human Services). It depicts a woman playing with several small children. Lying on her back, she somehow has the strength to balance them all above her like cherubim. No adult male is present, either to observeor participate. Regardless, this mythical, strong, self-sufficient, single mother has time and energy to play. Some misguided individual thought this sculpture merited the title, “Happy Mother.”

Likewise, the latest official poverty report Poverty in the United States, 2001 encourages a myth instead of confronting the realities of single parenting. The public statements issued by the Bureau of Census to accompany Poverty, 2001 called attention to the increase in poverty among married-couple families, but neglected to mention the fact that the increase in poverty among single-parent families was nearly 4 times as large, with the lion’s share of this coming in mother-only families. That data hardly squares with the notion of carefree, happy single motherhood; sadly, the realities of mother-only parenting are sobering for both the mother and the children.

Numerous sociologists and psychologists acknowledge the impact and risks of poverty associated with female-headed households. David Eggebeen and Daniel Lichter, both from Pennsylvania State University, reported in the American Sociological Review back in 1991, “Increases in divorce rates, changing female headship rates, and the rising share of non-marital fertility have fueled the growing proportion of individuals most at risk of impoverishment.” These sociologists continued, “Between 1960 and 1987, the percentage of American children living in female-headed families increased from 8 percent to over 20 percent.” Eggebeen and Lichter warned, “With roughly 45 percent of female-headed families falling below the official poverty thresholds, the potential economic implications of children’s changing living arrangements are stark.” Until the reversals last year due to the recession, the total number of mother-only families with children had stopped growing and the number in poverty had actually been decreasing since the beginning of welfare reform. Still the facts are clear, single-parent families are inherently vulnerable to economic recessions. Buried deep in Census’s data nearly 80 percent of the increase in poverty among families with children came from female-headed households with children. The failure of Census Bureau statisticians to highlight such critical information borders on professional malfeasance.

Yet, at the press briefing in September when the 2001 poverty data were released, the Census Bureau spokesperson completely ignored the importance of family structure, essential information for understanding the problem of poverty. Such misleading presentations of the data lead, inevitably, to ineffectively formulated policies. Ultimately, children are the ones who suffer when policy makers receive only partial information and when significant facts are buried deep in the numbers only to be found by persistent digging in the mountain of data contained in the detailed tables. Policy makers need to be fully informed if they are to craft meaningful and effective programs for the poor. Those responsible for policy should demand accountability from those whose “official” demographic information is distorted by incomplete and slanted reporting.

Since the launching of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, we have tried having the “village” raise “our” children and it doesn’t work. When something in this case “someone” is everyone’s concern, then no one takes full responsibility. Witness the awful mess of the foster care system in America. The truth is that once dysfunctional single-parent families produce children, the attendant problems are not all that amenable to governmental solutions. We’ve tried child support enforcement and we’ve made great strides in tracking down the deadbeat dads. But financial responsibility is just the beginning of the investment that a child needs. Kids need fathers; they need their physical presence in the home. Poverty and drug abuse are twin problems that make single parenting next to impossible especially among single mothers. Self-sufficiency is a monumental struggle. Money sometimes helps. But not when it fosters dependency and especially not when it merely ends up being siphoned off by drug dealers.

We’ve said faith-based initiatives should be supported and that they are our best hope of meeting the needs of those mired in poverty and addition. Faith based organizations are working valiantly and government cooperation is a big improvement. But even that is not enough. In spite of our best efforts and all the support that individuals, society and government can offer children need something far more personal. They need a mother and a father two mature responsible people completely devoted to them and working together to build a future and hope for them.

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