The Pittsburgh Foundation

Foundation report gives voice to single mothers facing poverty

Women identify five action areas to improve life conditions for themselves and their families

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 14, 2019 A Pittsburgh Foundation study of the lived experiences of single mothers in Allegheny County has found that, though the women as a group face the highest levels of poverty, their love for their children and their capacity for hard work push them to heroic lengths – despite systemic barriers and societal stigma – to better their families’ prospects.  

Among the findings in the report, “A Qualitative Study of Single Mothers in Allegheny County: A 100 Percent Pittsburgh Project,” released today, are that the requirements of many social service programs do not align with the realities of single parenthood.

The study began in the fall of 2017 by the Foundation’s Program and Policy staff with the goal of increasing understanding of the enormous challenges facing single mothers living in poverty and the resources they rely on to meet them. Also included in the report are recommendations developed through conversations with nonprofit organizations and the single mothers they serve.

An analysis of census data and income statistics revealed that 72 percent of households in poverty in Allegheny County are headed by single mothers, even though they make up only 28 percent of all families with children in Allegheny County. This disparity can be explained in part because cash benefits to low-income families with children have declined since 1996. The shortage of affordable housing in the region drives families to seek less-costly housing that is often farther from public transportation, job opportunities and services. Add in the benefits cliff, which eliminates government-subsidized food assistance and child care as wages improve, and single mothers may find themselves trapped in a cycle of poverty they cannot escape despite demanding work lives. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 64 percent of single mothers are in the workforce.

“Single mothers demonstrate great strength and resilience, contending daily with enormous logistical challenges made all-the-more difficult by low wages and limited access to transportation, affordable housing and child care,” said Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Maxwell King. “This report emphasizes the many ways that single mothers striving to better their lives often find the rug pulled out from under them, either by bureaucracy, the benefits cliff or stigma from the community.”

Project design: Michelle McMurray, the Foundation's senior program officer for Health and Human Services, led the research effort and worked closely with 17 nonprofit leaders serving single mothers to review available data and design a methodology to capture single mothers’ lived experiences. From September 2017 to February 2018, 42 women took part in five focus groups across the county. From the analysis that followed, five key themes emerged: outside support is crucial, systematic barriers prevent single mothers from getting ahead, single mothers get trapped in “survival mode,” stigma negatively affects women who utilize services, but care and concern for their children gives single mothers the emotional incentive to hold their families together.

Recommendations from focus group participants include improved access to services and resources such as:

  • Co-locating services and expanding operating hours, offering more access to affordable child care, and considering ways to improve transportation access especially outside of the city of Pittsburgh.
  • Supporting the development of practical skills and providing pathways out of poverty, including financial education; eliminating the benefits cliff in favor of grace periods that allow single mothers to keep housing, child care and health care assistance programs in place when workplace advancement increases pay; and increasing wages and access to cash assistance.
  • Organizing more programs that promote the social and emotional well-being of single mothers. This would include more respite services and expansion of emergency child care for unplanned work schedule changes or family crises.
  • Eliminating the presence of stigma in the delivery of services. This would include employing social service workers who can relate to the experiences of single mothers, training for staff in direct contact with single mothers, and including single mothers in the design of programs intended to serve them.
  • Providing opportunities to participate in advocacy and systems change efforts by offering child care and transportation and asking single mothers to serve on community and parental advisory boards to help devise policies that affect families.

The focus on single mothers: Despite advances in the regional economy, roughly one-third of the population struggles with poverty. Pittsburgh Foundation-commissioned research through the Urban Institute has determined that youth ages 12 to 24 and single women raising children are two populations at high risk of being trapped in poverty. That has made them priority populations for the Foundation’s 100 Percent Pittsburgh organizing principle, which was adopted by the Foundation in 2015 to address lack of opportunity of these groups to be full participants in the regional economy.

“Our staff recognizes that the people most affected by these issues also are the experts who should be involved in crafting the solutions,” said Jeanne Pearlman, the Foundation’s senior vice president for Program and Policy. “Single mothers must be at the center of efforts to change the systems that so directly impact every aspect of their lives.”

Some of the direct quotes from single mothers in the study included:

  • “If it weren’t for my parents, I don’t know where my son and I would be. Sorry for being emotional. I went through a really hard time when he was first born, and if I didn’t have that family support, I don’t know what I would have done.”
  • “I’m not from the city of Pittsburgh. My family is literally two hours away so I go through a lot, but I manage it. I tell everybody, as long as there’s a God I’m going to get through.”
  • “Services are hard to navigate and parents are discouraged from reaching out when they don’t hear from anyone or they have to work with the services are offered.”
  • “One of the biggest obstacles for single moms must be reliable child care. Affordable child care, especially if you don’t have a support system. I don’t live near family at all… You don’t want to be at work worrying about who’s taking care of your kid.”
  • “The transition that they take moms through, it doesn’t align with reality. I do believe that the system is another barrier, and it doesn’t set anyone up for anything positive in the end.”
  •  “There’s a stigma around being a single parent. That’s what I chose, but people look down on you. ‘You’re not married? And you have those kids?’ Damn straight I have those kids. Because I love my kids.”
  • “I had to do extreme couponing to make sure we had [food]. When they cut me off from food stamps, I had to really, you know, buckle down.”
  • “My daughter’s my motivation. When I look at her, I feel like it’s all worth it, everything I’m going through. My daughter tells me every day, ‘Mom, you’re my best friend.’ That’s my best friend.”

In the months ahead, the Foundation will continue to work with the nonprofit partners who participated in the research initiative. A subset of partner organizations will be asked to serve as an advisory committee tasked with helping to guide the Foundation’s response to the recommendations from the report, including formulating a policy agenda that will begin to address the need for systems change.

For project partner Lisa Perry, who leads Jeremiah’s Place, the region’s only crisis nursery, the study has brought to the forefront a group of women whose hopes, dreams and strengths too often go unnoticed.

“This work is about seeing one another and honoring the humanity and dignity of one another, particularly the single mothers who have shared their stories with us,” Perry said.

The full report is available for download from the Foundation’s website here: Single Mothers Study.   

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