Single Moms Escaping Poverty ; Strong Economy, Declining Teen Birth Rates Are among Factors Helping Many Women Work as They Care for Kids

By LeClaire, Jennifer | The Christian Science Monitor, September 4, 2001 | Go to article overview

Single Moms Escaping Poverty ; Strong Economy, Declining Teen Birth Rates Are among Factors Helping Many Women Work as They Care for Kids


LeClaire, Jennifer, The Christian Science Monitor


Most Americans dread filing taxes, but Shundra London was thrilled to report her income to the Internal Revenue Service last year. That's because 2000 was the first time Ms. London, the owner of her own sewing business, ever had a job and taxes to pay.

Before that, the 36-year-old single mother of three depended on one form of public assistance or another for nearly a decade.

"It's a recurring battle with being in and out of the system," she said. "But I've always had the will to get off every time I got on."

Ms. London is representative of a little-noticed trend in the United States: The poverty rate among female householders, mainly single mothers, is dropping.

Perhaps more impressive, the decline comes as the number of single mothers - traditionally among the most economically vulnerable groups - has been rising. Indeed, new census figures show that the poverty rate among female householders fell from 31 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2000.

Reasons include a strong economy, growing earning power for women, and the earned-income tax credit.

Welfare reform has also played a significant, if controversial, role. Declines in unemployment among single mothers escalated following the 1996 act.

"Welfare reform has stimulated single mothers to enter the workforce both for carrots and sticks," says Robert Lerman, a social-policy expert at the Urban Institute in Washington. "The sticks are the time limits [on welfare] and the work requirements, but then the carrots are greater childcare spending and the significant increase in earned-income credits."

But beyond the economy and government policies, demographic factors are also at play.

Teen birth rates have fallen to 40-year low, down by about one- fourth over the past decade. Also, the presence of unmarried partners may provide added economic support - or ease daycare strains - for many single moms.

Together, the economic and social changes are lifting many women off the welfare lines and above the poverty line. But in many cases the gains are modest and potentially at risk in a weakening economy.

London runs a sewing and embroidery business, SL Designs and Manufacturing, in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna. But even though her financial status has improved on paper, her living conditions don't reflect a dramatic change.

"I'm still almost working in poverty running my own business, but at least I can see the potential of what I can do," London says. "The difference is my rent is paid on time. My kids aren't complaining. They know our situation and they are good, grateful kids."

For now, she and her three children are still living in a two- bedroom, one-bath apartment that seconds as a sewing factory, but it is in a neighborhood where she is not afraid to let her kids go outside to play.

London expects her growing business to gross $100,000 over the next 12 months. …

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