Single mothers are doing better financially, but still struggling

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Single mother Evelyn Dortch earns a salary that barely puts her family above the poverty level, but she will gladly take that over the welfare checks she collected during the 1990s.

More than a decade after leaving her husband, Dortch got a college degree and a steady job to help support her and her four children. According to the 2000 census, poverty rates for families led by single moms like Dortch decreased over the past decade.

Dortch says she is a ``welfare success story,'' and experts point to the once-booming economy and greater acceptance in the workplace as some reasons for the improvement made by single moms.

Still, more than one-third of families led by single mothers live below the poverty level, census data shows.

The 1996 welfare overhaul nudged more single moms off public assistance rolls and into jobs. But many women simply entered ``working poor'' status, leaving them more vulnerable to the economic slowdown that occurred since the census was taken, said researcher William O'Hare of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a children's advocacy group.

Dortch's job at a community development outreach program pays her $22,000 a year. It is enough so that she doesn't have to go back on welfare, which she collected off-and-on between 1990 and 1999, when she graduated from college.

``Education was my ticket out of poverty and to gaining my self-respect,'' she said. Next year, she plans to move her family _ her kids are ages 11 to 16 _ out of public housing in St. Albans, W.Va.

``When (Congress) considers welfare reform, education needs to be the first priority, not employment,'' she said.

The census showed 34 percent of households led by a single mother with a child under 18 lived in poverty in 1999, an improvement from 42 percent in 1989. The Census Bureau asks about a person's economic status in the calendar year before forms are distributed.

For all families, poverty rates improved from 10 percent to 9 percent, while the rate for all residents improved from 13 percent to 12 percent, the census found.

``But the question is whether these lower rates are sustainable,'' said Jill Miller of the advocacy group Women Work!, which coordinates job training and education programs. ``Our concern is that we see women who work two or three jobs who managed to get themselves out of poverty, but at a very high cost.''

Diana Hernandez said things have gotten worse for her in recent years. She divorced in 1996 and raises her 8-year-old son and two teen-age daughters in temporary housing in San Leandro, Calif.

Like many other single moms, she struggles to pay for the rent, groceries and utility bills.

``In 1990, I was fine. It's the last six years that have been difficult,'' Hernandez said.

She said the $79 in monthly child support she gets from her ex-husband barely helps pay for food. She sometimes skims money off utility bill payments to afford things like her son's Little League uniform.

``The big issue for me is child care _ not having it,'' said Hernandez, who is taking classes at a local college. As Congress debates whether to change the welfare system, Hernandez hopes lawmakers offer more child care help to single parents.

Poverty levels differ according to a household's makeup. For instance, in 1999, the poverty threshold for a family of five, including four children, was $19,578. The threshold for a three-person household with one child was $13,410.

Poverty rates for households led by single mothers improved throughout the country except for the District of Columbia, where it worsened slightly, and Hawaii, where it remained relatively unchanged.

States in the South and more rural states tended to have higher percentages of single mothers in poverty. By county, urban counties like Los Angeles County and Cook County, Ill. had the greatest number of single mother-led homes.

Poverty data for single mothers refers to women who live with either their own child or a related child at home. Previous surveys show most of these children are the women's offspring.

Income and poverty data come from the 2000 census long form questionnaire distributed to about one in six American households.