Left Behind

Lost in the economic recovery

Raising kids alone gets even tougher

  • Article by: ADAM BELZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2014 - 10:05 AM

Incomes have fallen noticeably for single moms and dads in recent years, compounding the many challenges they already face.

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A bitter January wind whipped down the street in downtown Minneapolis where Veronica Perkins and her 4-year-old daughter, Nari, waited for the bus.

Nari’s asthma kicked up, but there was no shelter. “The wind was just scorching, and it was just freezing cold,” Perkins recalled. Nari wound up spending a day in the hospital. Perkins is still paying off the bill.

The 21-year-old single mother has a 3.8 GPA at community college, but not enough money for day care. She sweeps, works the cash register and restocks shelves at a downtown liquor store until late at night. She has no car, no home of her own, and little prospect to change that until she gets an associate degree, which will take at least another two years.

Single parents like Perkins have never had it easy, but they have been falling further behind in recent years.

Median income for Minnesota households led by single women fell 18 percent from 1999 to 2012, or $7,140 adjusted for inflation. Married-couple families in the state hardly saw a dip, according to analysis of census data by the Star Tribune and the State Demographer’s Office. Families led by single fathers — a smaller, but growing group — have seen persistent income declines nationally.

“They have limited means to grow that income,” said Stephanie Hogenson, of the Children’s Defense Fund in Minnesota. “They’re a flat tire away from economic instability and not being able to pay the rent, and falling further and further behind on their bills.”

Stagnant wages, shifts in government policy, the rising cost of child care and a weak job market have converged on single parents and their 20.5 million children. Of the 17.5 million being raised by a single mother, close to half live under the poverty line, and that percentage is growing.

“Right now, the economic situation for single parent families with limited education and training looks pretty grim,” said Julia Henly, a professor of social work at the University of Chicago. “I don’t think that the economic gains since the recession have been obvious to a lot of people, especially low-income single mothers.”

The problem isn’t that these parents aren’t working. Poor single mothers, in particular, are working at historically high numbers.

Even single parents with stable incomes are struggling in today’s economy. Raising children alone can prevent parents from taking on more responsibility at work or force them to work less, which has put them at a disadvantage in a soft job market, said Mikki Morrissette, a single mother in Minneapolis who founded a group called Choice Moms.

“We look for those flexible work environments — we need them, and that maybe means that we get hit harder than other families, because we don’t have quite as much clout in the workplace,” said Morrissette, whose group is for mothers who adopt a child or bear one by means of in-vitro fertilization, usually without a father.

Morrissette was a divorced editor in New York City when she decided to build a family. Her daughter, Sophia, was born in 1999, and Morrissette has not worked a full-time job since. She moved back to her native Minnesota to be closer to family and friends, and had a son, Dylan, in 2004.

“Without great support networks, it’s incredibly difficult no matter who you are,” she said.

She works as a freelance communications specialist, owns a big house in Hopkins, and rents the extra rooms. Property taxes and heating costs have risen faster than her income, and home insurance costs $2,000 more than it did when she bought the home 11 years ago, she said.

“The typical expenses have gone up,” she said, “and I haven’t been keeping pace.”

Not just single mothers

Single fathers in the U.S. are increasingly shouldering a similar burden, raising 2 million American children. In Minnesota, the number of children raised by single fathers has grown 45 percent since 1999, to 91,000.

Brian Loch, 43, had a daughter, Lily, with his girlfriend in 2012. The couple split, and he was off working in western North Dakota when the mother lost custody of Lily, and the state put the little brown-haired girl in foster care.

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