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.
Loch came back to Minnesota, took a job at a salvage yard making $15 an hour, and set out to prove to social workers that he could take care of his daughter. He drove 100 miles round trip to visit her and attend mandatory meetings with county officials.
He now has Lily full time. He’s watched her learn to talk, walk, run and climb stairs, and figure out how to open Christmas presents. He teaches her to dance the hokey pokey and buys fresh vegetables for her to eat. “It’s just so cool watching her learn all these things; every day you see her pick up something,” he said.
But it’s been difficult to keep up financially. He pays $1,100 per month in rent and utilities, he said, because foreclosures have flooded the market near Park Rapids with renters, pushing up the cost of any home where he would feel comfortable raising his daughter. Fruits and vegetables, diapers, gas money — they add up. The critical cost is day care.
He had a spot for Lily lined up with a woman in Menahga, where they live, for $24 a day, but it fell through when another family needed two spots. Loch has started a better-paying job with a commercial construction firm in Perham, but a day-care center there would cost $8 an hour, he said, which is prohibitive.
“That’s about 40 percent of my hourly wage, and then throw another 30 percent to Uncle Sam, you walk away with 30 percent at the end of the day,” Loch said. “You can’t make it on that.”
Federal funding that subsidizes child care hit a 10-year low in 2012. In Minnesota, more than 8,000 families are on a waiting list for a child-care subsidy and 82 percent of those who qualify are not enrolled, said Hogenson, of the Children’s Defense Fund.
There’s little wiggle room for single fathers or mothers who must work part-time in order to care for their kids. The median wage offer for part-time openings in Minnesota is $10 per hour.
No one would look at Veronica Perkins and pity her. She’s poised, energetic and hopeful about the future.
But her daily life is a battle. She and her daughter sleep on the couch at her mother’s house. One week in mid-January, she said she didn’t have enough money for food.
“I have to work on everybody else’s time right now because I’m homeless,” Perkins said. “I can’t find stability.”
Single mothers took an especially hard hit in the recession because a historically high share of them were working when the economy crashed and thus had more to lose, said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families.
Welfare reform signed in 1996 by President Clinton was meant to move more people from welfare into the workforce, and it had the desired effect. In the early 1990s, 45 percent of never-married mothers — the poorest and least-educated — had a job, according to data compiled by Haskins. By 2007, almost 65 percent of never-married mothers were working, meaning a fifth of them joined the workforce in one decade.
“An irony is that when that happens, then the families are vulnerable to the economy, rather than to just welfare payments,” Haskins said. “In the old days, a lot of female-headed families, what did they know about recessions? They weren’t in the labor force anyway.”
The late 1990s were an anomaly, said Luke Shaefer, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan. The economy was booming, and single parents gained ground financially. When the recession hit, those gains were erased.
“By 2000, income inequality had tightened up a little bit, and gotten a little better,” Shaefer said. “Basically it’s been a tough fall ever since.”
About 31,000 parents in Minnesota received any sort of cash assistance from the government in 2012, the vast majority of them single mothers. A study over the course of the last decade showed that about half of those newly enrolled for cash assistance in Minnesota are coming straight out of a job, and about three of every five people getting food stamps, cash welfare, or child care assistance either is or was working in one of four largely low-wage industries — retail, restaurants, hotels and temp agencies.
These types of jobs often come with shifting and unpredictable work schedules, which make it even more difficult for single parents to plan ahead and arrange for baby sitters.
“The jobs they held even prior to the recession were unstable, unpredictable and precarious,” said Henly, at the University of Chicago. “I think that the recession really put in the forefront a lot of challenges that people in the labor market had been experiencing for years, and brought a lot more people into a situation where they were in these pretty horrible economic circumstances.”
Another factor holding down single-mother income could be that many of the jobs available to single mothers don’t pay enough to make up for the government cash and subsidies a woman loses when she starts earning money and no longer qualifies for the assistance. A 2012 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office showed that a single parent who doesn’t work and earns zero dollars has about as much disposable income as one who earns $15,000 a year in a part-time job.
“You have this stratification in the labor market, and it’s only getting worse with the advent of the Great Recession and this long period afterward,” Shaefer said.
One way to help
High apartment rents are a particular problem in the Twin Cities, forcing single mothers to live with family or move to suburbs where transportation to day care and work is more difficult and complicated, said Gloria Perez, president of the Jeremiah Program, a national project based in Minneapolis that helps single mothers.
“Women are having to look at second- and third-ring suburbs, which increases their transportation costs, which makes it more difficult for them to find work near their children,” Perez said. “When there’s a crisis, everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”
The formula at Jeremiah is to offer inexpensive housing, child care, life-skills classes, networking and a supportive community to single mothers. In return the mothers commit to going to school and working at least part-time.
“Education is the key lever,” Perez said. “They know that will be a lever for success, but other things keep getting in the way.”
Women in the program can work toward an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. Most women who apply to the program already have a plan, Perez said, and “we help them think through the economics.”
The program has 39 units for single moms and their children in Minneapolis, right next to the Basilica of St. Mary. It also has 38 units in St. Paul, and operations in Austin, Texas, and Fargo, N.D. It gets about a third of its funding through government grants.
“Women who get a degree graduate from the program, and then have six months to look for a job or a home,” Perez said.
All about Nari
Perkins has had no trouble finding jobs over the years. She worked at Taco Bell (liked it), Buffalo Wild Wings (liked it), Abercrombie & Fitch (hated it), as a hotel housekeeper (loved it but was laid off) and now works at Team Liquor.
She goes to school but can’t take more than a couple of classes a semester because she also has to work and take care of her daughter. While on a waiting list for Head Start, Nari spends her days shuttling between grandparents’ homes, sometimes ferried by Perkins’ brother. Nari’s father will get out of prison in a year and has pledged to help care for her. He was involved in a robbery when Nari was a baby, Perkins said, and the girl longs for him.
“Her dad coming into place would just complete things for her, and make me a lot happier to see her happy,” Perkins said.
It would also allow Perkins to take more classes, especially once Nari is old enough for school, where Perkins is anxious to see her excel. Perkins says she had few positive role models growing up to push her, but she will make sure that’s different for Nari. Like all parents — single or married — she wants her child’s life to be better than hers.
“She’s so smart,” Perkins said. “If she just had a little push, I know she could go so far. And I’m not going to let her slip through the cracks.”