Single moms escaping poverty

Strong economy, declining teen birth rates are among factors helping many women work as they care for kids.

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.

Now, with the slowdown in the US economy, experts say the prospects for her and other single mothers are uncertain.

"You have to hold your breath," said Douglas Besharov of American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "Generally the rule is 'last hired, first fired,' and that would put single mothers at the head of the line to be let go."

Still, overall gains did not falter in early 2001, according to recent Urban Institute data. The government safety net also includes unemployment insurance - a temporary bulwark against returning to welfare.

With many single moms still in or near poverty, debate persists over whether they and their children are really better off than before welfare reform.

By one study, increased earnings of low-income families were fully offset by a decline in the benefits that the government safety-net programs provide, suggesting that these families are no better off as a group.

"Welfare reform has really increased the number of working poor," says Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, which conducted the study. "One of the successes of welfare reform has been to increase the percentage of never-married women who are working. Unfortunately, we've also cut support, so that not nearly as many of them are getting out of poverty as should be."

Mr. Besharov says that while there are many more working poor, that's not necessarily a bad thing. While single mothers may not be better off immediately, he said, the long-term benefit is that they are building experience that will lead to better jobs.

One of the most important challenges for single mothers is balancing work and home life. Numerous studies show negative impacts on children whose mothers are pushed into the workforce. Child Trends, a Washington research organization, found that teenagers whose mothers participated in welfare-to-work programs appear to do worse in school and have more behavior problems than teens from other welfare families.

What's the solution for the struggling single mother doing the best she can for her children?

"It might mean more after-school programs," said Child Trends researcher Jennifer Brooks. "It might mean providing more support to these families through the communities, so that kids aren't taking adult roles or being left unsupervised."

As for London, she says the best part of her new life is independence from public assistance. Even though the days are long and the times are still lean, London sees a bright future for her and her children.

"I don't have to wait to the first of the month to buy food," she says. "And my kids are proud of me and the work I do. We really are getting by."

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