Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Economic Well-Being of Single Mothers: Work First or Postsecondary Education?

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare

Economic Well-Being of Single Mothers: Work First or Postsecondary Education?

Article excerpt

This article investigates the relationship between single mothers' education and their economic well-being. Through the analysis of the 1993 Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) data, we examine the effect of education on a sample of White and African American single mothers. The results indicate that past work experience is a weak predictor of current economic well-being. Having education, particularly postsecondary education, on the other hand, significantly improves their economic status. The results challenge the "work-first" approach to alleviating poverty and provide more support for designing policies to develop human capital.

Key words: postsecondary education, welfare reform, single mothers, economic well-being


American family structure has changed in the past four decades due to a rise in the divorce rate and a rise in never married women with children. Mother-only families have become increasingly common. In 1960, non-married women headed about 9 percent of families with children; by 1999 the number was over 20 percent (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1961, 2000). In the meantime, female-headed households consistently comprised a large proportion of poor households. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, female-headed families with children were five times more likely to be poor than two-parent families with children (Furstenberg, 1990; Garfinkel & McLanahan, 1986; Nichols-Casebolt & Krysik, 1997; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). In 2000, 35.1 percent of female-headed families with children under 18 lived in poverty, compared with 6.9 percent of married-couples with children under 18. In the same year, female-headed households with children under 18 comprised 52 percent of all poor households with children under 18 (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001).

Given the rise of single-mother families, it is important to examine factors that contribute to the economic well-being of these families. Studies indicate that reasons for the low economic well-being of female-headed households include low earning capacity of single mothers, low job opportunity in the neighborhoods where they reside, inadequate enforcement of child support, and meager public benefits (McLanahan & Booth, 1989; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Nichols-Casebolt & Krysik, 1997; Rocha, 1997). A less often cited factor, but probably one of the most important to the economic well-being, is the low level of human capital, especially the lack of higher education, of single mothers. For a married woman living with her husband, her lower level of educational attainment and earning may not be a problem since there is a spouse to help provide for the incomes of the family; however, her earning alone become insufficient in single-mother families (Mauldin & Koonce, 1990). The work requirements and time limits of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 have further reduced options for poor women's postsecondary education (U.S. Congress, 1996). The PROWRA emphasizes "work first" strategy and allows women only up to 12 months of vocational training while on welfare. It is important to understand the role of postsecondary education on women's economic status and its role in comparison to work experiences.

Much of the past research has compared economic status of female-headed families with married families. For example, much attention has been given to the high poverty rates in female-headed households and the negative economic consequences of divorce on women and their children. These studies did not pay much attention to the within-group variations of female-headed households (Richards & Schmiege, 1993). To examine the variation of economic well-being within similar types of households is helpful in locating strengths some female-headed families may have to buffer the risk of poverty and other vulnerabilities. If there are strengths within this group of families, future policy can either replicate or target the strengths to mitigate vulnerability among these families. …

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