Off-Kilter Podcast
Aug 15, 2018 · 40 min read

The U.S. has always victimized single moms, but a new anthology of research from Laurie Maldonado and Rense Neiuwenhuis shows just how deep that mistreatment goes; Christy Felling of No Kid Hungry explains why summer is especially difficult for food insecure kids and how the House Farm Bill will only make it worse. Subscribe to Off-Kilter on iTunes.

The U.S. has long demonized single parents — and especially single moms — like nowhere else in the western world. A new global anthology of research on treatment of families and single parents called The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families offers a damning critique not of single moms, but of how the U.S. is hanging them, and their families, out to dry.

But first, for kids who rely on school for regular meals, summer isn’t a time of joy and freedom, it’s a time of hunger. Rebecca spoke with Christy Felling of No Kid Hungry about summer hunger as well as the latest on the Farm Bill, which if House Republicans get their way, could cost 265,000 kids their access to school meals.

This week’s guests:

  • Laurie Maldonado, co-author of The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families
  • Rense Nieuwenhuis, co-author of The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families
  • Christy Felling, Directer of PR for Share Our Strength

For more on this week’s topics:

  • Check out the anthology The Triple Bind of Single-Parent Families here
  • Stay up to date on all the great work No Kid Hungry is doing to fight against food insecurity

This week’s transcript:

REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off Kilter, the show about poverty, inequality and everything they intersect with, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m Rebecca Vallas. This week on Off Kilter, the U.S. has long demonized single parent families and particularly single moms like nowhere else in the western world. But a new global anthology of research on treatment of single parent families across developed nations called “The Triple Bind of Single Parent Families” offers a damning critique not of single moms but of how the U.S. is hanging them and their families out to dry. I speak with the editors of the anthology. But first for kids who rely on school for regular meals, summer isn’t a time of joy and freedom. It’s a time of hunger. I speak with Christy Felling of No Kid Hungry about summer hunger as well as the latest on the farm bill, which if house Republicans get their way could cost 265,000 kids across the U.S. their access to school meals. Let’s take a listen.


And I’m so pleased to be joined by Christy Felling, she’s the director of public affairs at No Kid Hungry, Christy, thanks so much for coming on the show finally.

CHRISTY FELLING: Thank you for having me finally. This is great.

VALLAS: Almost unbelievable to me that it’s taken this long, that’s on me.

FELLING: I think it’s on me as well because I don’t check my email, my new trick is to just mark everything as ‘read’ when I get stressed out and just ignore things. It is not one that I would advise people to take.

VALLAS: You should not be teaching me tricks like that because anyone who knows me knows my inbox and how hard it is to reach me, even when I’m trying to hear from people because I’m so bad with email.

FELLING: Absolutely, just mark everything as ‘read’ it’s so freeing.

VALLAS: It sounds amazing. I’m totally going to go do that right after we stop taping.

FELLING: But then it takes us a year to set up a time for us to get together and chat. So it has a downside too.

VALLAS: I appreciate you taking some of the responsibility. That was gracious of you. It was unnecessary but it was gracious.

FELLING: That’s me, gracious.

VALLAS: So Christy, the reason that I want to have you on this show apart from the fact that I love you and you’re fabulous and it’s an excuse to hang out with you was that it’s summer and a lot of people sort of, oh summer, summer, summer is a time where it’s fun and I’m hanging out with my family and we’re going to the amusement park and whatever it is. But not nearly often enough do people think about the fact that summer isn’t just a time of fun and kids not being in school and getting to do cool activities. It’s also really hard for a lot of low income families and in particular kids who end up not having the access to the regular meals that they get in school during that time of summer. Summer ends up being less than fun for a lot of those kids.

FELLING: Absolutely, summer is actually a really tough time of way too many kids in the country. If you think about it a lot of kids during the actual school year have a regular routine, and they are also especially from low income families able to rely on a lot of the meals they get at school. There’s school breakfast in the morning, there’s school lunch and just imagine that all the sudden, June comes, you’re out of school and those meals disappear. And that’s what a lot of kids are facing. And it leads to added hunger, it leads to a lot of stress on families. Because if you think about it during the summer months a lot of families are dealing with increased child care costs, travel costs, a lot of other expenses hit at that time as well. And it can really play a huge, outsized roll for back to school. We talked a lot of principals, but we talked to the phenomenal principal in Virginia and she said she can actually tell when kids come back in September how many of them struggled to get the food that they needed during the summer months. And that they are more sluggish, they have forgotten way more than their peers have over summer, that dreaded summer slide. And that it can cause problems that are short term in the summertime itself but then can go into the next school year and then they compound on top of each other. And pretty soon kids are struggling with huge both academic and nutritional deficits because there isn’t a great system in place to make sure that they get the food they need in the summertime.

VALLAS: And help put some numbers to this. How many kids are we talking about here?

FELLING: About 13 million kids in this country live in a family that struggles with hunger. Let me put a little context around that. Sometimes that’s exactly what you’re thinking of, it is the family that has literally nothing in the fridge, nothing in the pantry, they are going day to day without meals. These are also the families where maybe moms skips dinner a few times a week so there’s enough for the kids to have at night before they go to bed. These are also families having to make just devastating choices between do I buy enough groceries for everybody this month or am I going to pay the rent? Should I buy enough food or do I pay the electric bill and make sure we keep the lights on? There are a couple of studies that came out recently that just blew my mind to put this into perspective. Because I think a lot of people have this preconceived notions of what poverty looks like in the country. And forgive me, I’m sure you know all of these but I’m going to say them anyway because it makes me feel smart to know about them.

VALLAS: Well I don’t know if you know this Christy but we’re taping for a radio show and so even though I might know all of this, there are other people listening too.

FELLING: See, that’s why when I come here and we hang out and we chat I feel like I’m just in your living room. Ok, so I’ll say them anyway. So one was the federal reserve had a study that came out last year that said that almost half of all Americans would be hardpressed to come up with $400 on the spot without either selling something or taking out a loan. So if you think of people that are living that close to hardship, that’s astonishing. And then my organization, No Kid Hungry did a survey of low income families last summer and we found that two-thirds of low income families said they would be struggling with hunger, not have enough to eat if faced with an emergency expense of about $1,500. If you put that into context, I went and googled “what costs $1,500?” it costs about $1,500 to have your broken arm set in the ER if you don’t insurance. It costs about $1,500 to replace a blown water heater or a blown car transmission. So two-thirds of low-income families are literally one disaster away from not being about to feed their kids. That’s a hard fact, but it’s a very real fact and that’s why we’re really focused on figuring out how kids can eat in the summer months

Now there is a program that is designed to connect kids to food during summer. It’s the federal summer meals program and it operates in schools, libraries, organizations around the country. They are in rural areas, they are in urban areas, the problem is way too many families don’t know these programs exist and the places that these meals are served changes every summer so every summer you’ve got to relearn where the free meals in your community are. But we have a couple of ways that families can find out where the meals are and when they’re being offered so that they can have a little bit of extra, just a little extra food, a little extra wiggle room when it comes to their kids.

VALLAS: Now there was a report, you just mentioned a few different reports and we’re getting wonky, I’m gonna bring up another report.

FELLING: I’m such a nerd, I’m sorry.

VALLAS: Well and you bring it out of me too, so it’s OK Christy, I’m also a nerd, people will be familiar with this about me if they’ve met me ever. But there was another report that came out recently that had a very different tone and that actually came out from the White House. It was the White House Council of Economic Advisers, which sounds like a bunch of really smart people who have Ph.D’s in economics and maybe they really know what they’re talking about, right? And that report, which effectively denied that poverty even exists in America and we’ve discussed this at length on this show because of course we have. There was one piece in there that I wanted to put to you to get your reaction because what you’ve just described is a really significant problem, hunger being a really significant problem in this country broadly but also among families with kids. And what this report, this Council of Economic Advisers said was OK, so maybe 12.9% of people live in households defined as food insecure, they acknowledge that that is a statistic that also comes out of the same federal government. It then continues and says but yeah, this includes households which always had sufficient food but at some point during the year had difficultly obtaining food or reduced diet quality as a consequence of limited resources. So basically the way I read that is you guys really aren’t hungry enough to be hungry by our standards so maybe you should go feed the kids in Somalia who ends up on commercials during daytime TV to pull your heart strings for us to care. How would you respond to someone who says yeah, alright maybe our definitions say that people are hungry but we think that the federal government isn’t doing a very good job of defining who’s really hungry.

FELLING: So, my off the record comment about that is this report was bonkers. This was just sheer bonkers, I think anyone who has spent anytime in the real world knows you can’t ignore or define a problem away. If I’ve got a bill that comes through the mail that I don’t have enough money to pay or feel like paying, if I stick it in a desk drawer, it doesn’t get better. If I have a scratch or a wound on my leg and decide to just ignore it for a few months, it probably is not going to just go away on it’s own. And so just the sheer concept that this report came out and tried to solve the problem by saying hey, no problem here just makes no sense to me. And what I would encourage these economic advisers, these green eye shade guys, these economists, what I would really encourage them to do is to go out in the real world and meet some of these real families because whether you don’t have anything or if you just don’t have enough, that need is still just there. Like we were saying before, sometimes it is completely empty pantries. But how do you use that report to talk to a mom who says look we have quote, unquote “reduced our dietary intake”, what do you say to a mom who says all I can afford are bags of raisins and instant ramen? Now I love instant ramen, I think it’s delish but if that’s your own sustenance meal after meal after meal, that’s going to cause you some health problems, it’s going to cause you cognitive problems, all of these other issues. So the fact that some of these families are only existing on high fat, high salt, low quality food, cheap food and have no access to some of the more expensive/healthier food options is a real problem.

VALLAS: Are you saying Christy that it’s not just bad parents making bad choices? Because that’s why I thought they were all feeding their kids soda and candy, right?

FELLING: That just makes me absolutely insane, it really does. Being out in the field with No Kid Hungry, we meet so many families and the one truth that I have found in talking to so many families across the country is that across the board, families want the best for their kids. It does not matter if you are living on the upper east side of Manhattan or if you are barely getting by working three jobs in West Virginia, what the reality is is you want your kids to have a good life, you want your kids to have a good chance and you want to do your best by them and sometimes that luck of the draw on how much you have to be able to offer your kids is really defining. We talked to a dad who had come home from serving overseas, his wife left and he was raising his young son. And he actually got emotional in telling us about the struggles he was having as he was trying to find work, care for his household and he got tears in his eyes and he said I just want my son to think I’m a hero. And to see that and to know he was trying his absolute best to make sure that his child had the medical care he needed, the dental care, clothes and school supplies and was struggling to find ways to feed his kid, especially in the summertime. That takes an emotional toll on anyone. And so for reports like that to see to try to vilify poverty, to say that this is consequences of bad decisions, is not just unfair, I think it stops us from finding really solutions.

VALLAS: So this is a timely conversation not just because it’s summer and there’s lots of kids out there who are hungry, lots of families who are facing even more cash strapped budgets because they’re having to shell out more money to feed their kids who are home all day, who are home more, it’s also a timely conversation because and it’s been a while since we brought this up on this show, but guess what, the farm bill, which would take food assistance away from 2 million Americans including lots and lots of families with kids, and I’m describing the house version of the bill of course, not the senate version and people who listen to this show, they know those distinctions, Christy because our listeners are nerds too I’m proud to say. That farm bill is not gone, it’s just sort of gone under the radar. And actually what’s happening as we speak is the house and the senate are doing a complicated dance behind closed doors to head towards something that’s called conference, a process to deal with the fact that the senate version of the bill that would reauthorize food stamps and the house version of the bill are so different. They’re miles and miles and miles apart, that’s all happening behind closed doors as we speak. What do folks need to be aware of about what comes next and what this process could look like?

FELLING: So what comes next is anybody’s guess. We’re keeping a really close eye on this for the farm bill there’s so many different pieces of this. I’m specifically talking about the nutrition element of this, the SNAP element. And SNAP is a program that gives a grocery benefit to low-income families so that they are able to use what’s called an EBT card, it’s an electronic benefits card, you go into grocery stores and you can buy groceries. A lot of people don’t realize how many kids the SNAP benefits helps. And the fact that so many kids could be affected by some of the nastier elements in the farm bill itself. These federal nutrition really work together. We were just talking about summer and the fact that there is not enough food a lot of kids, oh I forot to say, if you’re looking to help families, if you yourself need help in the summertime with food, there is a texting number that allows families to know where their closest free summer meal site is.

VALLAS: Oh yeah that’s important, let’s share that.

FELLING: You just text the word FOOD or COMIDA to 877–877 and in return, you give a zip code, you don’t have to give you address or any personal information you just send a zip code and they send back a list of your closest summer meal sites. So as families are putting together some of those resources, we’re also focused on SNAP. Almost half of all SNAP participants are children. This is a program that really does help kids which is where a lot of my focus is through my job, although we know it also affects a lot of veterans, a lot of seniors, a lot of people who are unable to work. This is really a program that works, and works well. So what’s happening next is the senate version, which has some pretty decent stuff in it, is going up against the house version of the farm bill, which again just some whacky stuff in there.

VALLAS: Whacky is chartable.

FELLING: Whacky is chartable.

VALLAS: Christy, you’re obviously in a really good mood today.

FELLING: Oh, thank you!

VALLAS: Because I would have said some things that Will would’ve had to bleep out.

FELLING: Here’s the thing that gets me, and you know this about me, I cannot stand when a policy doesn’t make sense. I am all for if we disagree on what policy should be, I think it’s going to do this, you think it’s going to do this and we fight it out, that’s fine. I’m married to a Republican, I self-identify as a Democrat.

VALLAS: Christy, I didn’t know this about you.

FELLING: Oh really?

VALLAS: How did I not know this about you?

FELLING: I’m airing my dirty secrets right here.

VALLAS: We actually should talk about that for a range of reasons.

FELLING: We will do it.

VALLAS: Maybe off the air.

FELLING: But those are conversations that I love. It’s when someone that I feel is putting forward a policy that doesn’t even do what they think it wants to do that makes me just crazy, it makes no sense. So in the house version for example there is something that they say is about the house members say is about getting people back to work. The SNAP allows people to coast, they talked about how people on SNAP just sit on their front porch drinking beers, really this just condescending and vilifying way of talking about poverty in general. So in this there is something that says you need to work 20 hours a week, either be in work or job training and if you miss that goal one week then you get your SNAP benefits cut off for one year. So here’s what that really looks like. Say you are a 58 year old house cleaner and you work as much as you can, which is usually about 25 hours a week. And you’re bringing home as much money as you can and one week your back goes out, and you slip to 19 hours that week, boom, you’re out of SNAP. Let’s say that you are a single mom, you’re working a couple of jobs but they’re all part time, you’re under employed but you’re really trying to work more and you have a seven year old daughter and she gets strep throat. You have to stay home with her for three days because she’s seven and she’s running a fever, bam. Your hours slip to 15 that week, you’re off SNAP for one year.

VALLAS: Christy, I feel like the refrain to what you’re walking through should actually be ‘no soup for you’.

FELLING: Exactly.

VALLAS: Because we’re literally talking about locking people out of being able to afford groceries as a penalty for having life happen.

FELLING: Absolutely. And a lot of these things are things out of people’s control, these would effect people who are in places that don’t have a lot of jobs available, they’re doing their best, and so that to me, it doesn’t just make any sense. Punishing people who are doing their best makes no sense to me. The second piece that made no sense to me is there is something called broad based categorical eligibility (BBCE). If I try and walk through it I’m sure I’m going to some fact of it up. But internal version of this, this is a policy that allows you to streamline the way these programs work. If you already are eligible for one piece of program, you can be eligible for SNAP, it also raises the SNAP threshold from 130% of the poverty level to a little bit higher. So that as you go back to work you can remain on the program until your salary starts to [INAUDIBLE]

VALLAS: Which makes a lot of sense.

FELLING: It makes a lot of sense.

VALLAS: It allows people to actually up their hours, not be penalized, all the kinds of things that we often hear from conservative policy makers that they want to see happen.

FELLING: Exactly, this is the thing that helps to fix that cliff that people talk about. This is the thing that helps people get back to work because there’s a little bit of wiggle room as they start to make ever so slightly more money. So the house version would get rid of all of this. I’m like this solves some red tape issues, it solves some of your bureaucracy issues, it solves the cliff issue, and you’re going to get rid of it. It just doesn’t make sense to me. On top of that, the people that would be kicked out of the program by getting rid of this BBCE have children. And 265,000 kids would be affected and something people don’t realize is in most states SNAP benefits are also connected to school meals. So the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office did some research there and found that a quarter million kids would get kicked out of school meals, the free school meals program. So you’ve got this double whammy now where you are then losing the ability to eat at home and you’ve lost the ability to find nutrition at school. Again, if our end goal is to have a healthy, educated work force, if it’s to help kids get on a path out of poverty then let’s put things in place that actually do that instead of things that just sound really fun to say on a billboard or to yell into rallies that actually don’t help people and don’t create a stronger nation.

VALLAS: So now you’ve got senate folks saying OK, we’ve got this bill that basically preserves the SNAP program, it does some other stuff on agriculture, stuff that we don’t really focus on on this show as much because hey, I focus on the nutritional title too, that’s also me. And the senate folks are like let’s go ahead and use this bill because folks on bipartisan basis crafted it and agreed to it and voted it out of the senate, let’s use that. And the house is like no, we’ve actually got this really partisan bill that all Democrats, folks will know if they listen to this show, voted against in lockstep, something that has never happened before in the history of farm bills and there’s been a lot of them. And that only Republicans voted for and in fact, a lot of Republicans didn’t vote for because it’s so cruel and also so stupid for all the reasons you just described and many more. And you’ve got house Republicans saying yeah, we really need to see a lot more of our cruel boneheaded stuff in this bill for us to agree to it and that then brings us to conference, which is what’s about to happen in September.

FELLING: Right and so I think there’s just going to be a lot of backroom play on this. Again I think there are a lot of people who I’m hoping will be torn between following some party leadership in the house and taking their own stand because they have so many people who are hurting and in need in their home districts but it’s going to be tough. And there’s stuff in this senate bill that does the things that the house bill says it does but it doesn’t. I know that was just a whole lot of double negative kind of things in there. Let me restate.

VALLAS: I gotta be honest Christy, even I am confused.

FELLING: I’m going to draw this on a white board. So the house bill says we want to make sure that people get back to work. That sounds like a great thing but when you look at what their bill does, it actually does not support working families and makes it harder for people to get back to work. The senate bill actually has things in it that do help people get back to work. They’re putting together this really interesting program around training and working off of some pilot projects that they’ve done in the past. They’re streamlining the way that the training process would work to make sure that people had the opportunity to get back to work before you take their food away from them. And so it’s got some really decent stuff in there that is proactive and actually going to help. Because look, I think most of us can agree that having a job a really great path out of poverty so let’s make sure that we’re doing things that actually meet people where they are and make sure they have that opportunity instead of making up all this crazy stuff that doesn’t really do what it says it’s going to do and makes things harder for families, for kids, for caretakers across the board.

VALLAS: Because taking away someone’s food isn’t going to help them find a job any faster or help them get more hours for their job.

FELLING: I mean think about it. You’ve seen me without breakfast, it’s not a pretty sight. I think I’m why they invited that word ‘hangry’.

VALLAS: I knew you were going to say that too, your picture appears next to it in Urban Dictionary?

FELLING: I’m not really an angry one, I just get really dumb if I haven’t had food, I can’t string words together, I get really sluggish. So imagine that you’re looking for a job, you can’t find a job so instead of saying here are these things that can help you. The answer is oh, so we’re just going to take your food away. It just isn’t going to lead to two things, it’s also going to lead to more burden on people who are raising kids in this process and that adds to a whole other slew of problems with making sure kids have the basics. It’s just a bad scene all around if this house bill goes through. So we’re keeping an eye and making sure that we are supporting the good stuff that either already exists as part of the SNAP program or some of the positive changes that we see in the senate bill. We want to protect it, we want to strengthen it, we want to make sure it helps the people that it is designed to help. And part of that is we are going to be opposing all of the draconian really nasty things that exist as part of this house bill.

VALLAS: And for folks who are looking to get involved while the backroom dealing is happening, you can go to handsoffsnap.org, probably been a while since you went there but it’s back up and running with folks who need to hear from you before they head into the smoke filled back rooms where they think no one’s paying attention as they try to take food away from people who are just trying to do the best for their family. So Christy, lightening round for the last minute that I have with you, if we were having a different conversation about summer hunger and hunger generally, what policies would you want to see policymakers embracing, what would be the actual solutions to the problem that we know Trump’s White House is trying to deny?

FELLING: So we actually have nutrition programs in this country that are designed to reach kids in need. We have enough food in this country, so we’ve got food, we’ve got programs but there are barriers that block kids for getting this food. Sometimes it’s logistics, sometimes it’s just organization, sometimes it’s just that these programs, as awesome as they are, were created in the 40s. America and poverty and kids look a lot different than they did back in the day. And so we are looking to create the partnerships, work with elected officials, with schools, with governors, with food service directors, with corporations, with just anyone with the strength to share, to say alright, let’s go into a community and figure out why kids aren’t able to knit these programs together in a way that they can get the food they need no matter how old they are, no matter what their family situation is, no matter what zip code they live in, what time of day it is, what time of year it is. When you are seven it should not be difficult to figure out where dinner is. And so we are looking to just create a sustainable, scalable system so that if you are at school you can get breakfast if you need it, if you are at home you’ve got SNAP dollars that can buy your breakfast on a Saturday, that there are emergency food in areas for times of real need so that all of these systems are in place so it is not a challenge for a child to get the nutrition they need.

VALLAS: And for anyone wondering how could we possible afford that I would just remind listeners that Trump is calling for spending $100 billion on yet more tax cuts for the wealthiest people in this country and their children by tweaking the capital gains rules, $100 billion is actually more than it would take to end hunger every single year. So just something that maybe would be food for thought.

FELLING: And think of the return on investment. When you invest in kids, you are actually investing in your local community, your state, the country when kids consistently get the food that they need. They have so much research, I’m not going to list it out, I’ve said a lot of numbers here. But there’s so much research that shows the impact on education, on graduation rates, on health, on future health, on future workplace productivity, on the global economy. And so every dollar that we invest in getting to make sure kids have the food they need to grow up strong and healthy and smart leads to strong and healthy, smart state, and country and I think for me that’s the bottom line. What are we doing to make sure that we are setting a foundation for all of these other problems we’re up against, healthcare and prison rates and graduation rates and all of these other big issues at the root of all of them, if you really look lies the question did we feed our kids today.

VALLAS: Christy Felling is the director of public affairs at No Kid Hungry, you can find more of their great stuff at nokidhungry.org, did I get that right Christy?

FELLING: You absolutely did.

VALLAS: Oh, love when I get it right, Christy we’d love to have you back on the show soon.

FELLING: Thank you very much.

VALLAS: Thank you so much for coming on.

FELLING: Awesome

VALLAS: Don’t go away, more Off Kilter after the break, I’m Rebecca Vallas.


You’re listening to Off Kilter, I’m Rebecca Vallas. In the US there’s no shortage of stigma around being a single mom. The shaming and blaming of single moms in the US has long been at the core of America’s long and sordid history of debates around poverty as well as its causes and solutions. But a newly published anthology of research on single parents families throughout the developed world offers a damning critique not of single parents but how the US is failing them and their families. I sat down with the editors of the anthology for a sneak peek, the book is called “The Triple Bind of Single Parent Families”, and I’m so thrilled to be sitting with Laurie Maldonado and Rense Nieuwenhuis, who I just screwed that name up I’m sure.

RENSE NIEUWENHUIS You did it perfectly fine.

VALLAS: Well you’re gracious if nothing else. So Rense and Laurie, thank you so much for taking the time to join.

NIEUWENHUIS: Thank you very for inviting us and for having us here.

LAURIE MALDONADO: It’s such a privilege to be here and to get our research out and we’re big fans of you and this show and I’m from New York and Rense’s from Sweden so it’s just great for us to be in the studio to talk about single parent families.

NIEUWENHUIS: Absolutely.

VALLAS: So the title of the anthology, “The Triple Bind of Single Parent Families”, it signals that there are three things going on here and that is indeed how your organize the book and you organize it based on resources, employment and policies, all three of which you find are inadequate for single parent families and the spoiler, to give people the overall last page of the book. But there’s a lot more that I want to dig into so help me break down those three areas and why you chose to organize the book this way.

NIEUWENHUIS: Well, we organized the book in this way because we want to emphasize that resources, employment and policies all matter for single parents, in different ways of course. But they also matter together and it’s very often treated very separately for each other but we want to emphasize if you look at just one of those aspects of single parenthood or single parenting, then you miss the big picture and you misunderstand what’s going on. To start with the resources part for instance, it’s often said that in the US that single parents are unique because they’re lower educated. And that’s then used as an explanation of why they are so poor, such high poverty risk in the United States. Well it is true that single parents are more likely to be lower educated compared to parents who are in a couple and it is true that the lower educated are more likely to be poor. So it seems a very plausible explanation until you start looking at the other factors that are in play. And a very good example to illustrate this, even the higher educated single parents in the United States, they have a higher poverty rates than the lower educated in the Netherlands, to give just one example. So as soon as you start looking at what does education mean in different contexts, you immediately see that something else must be going on. And that’s why it’s also important to look at jobs and to look at social policy.

MALDONADO: And I’m just going back to your comment of blaming single parents and how the United States, single mom, it’s gendered and it’s racialized. And if you were going to illustrate the triple bind, what Rense was just talking about, you can imagine it’s single mom, she’s got a five year old son and her days are full. Everyday she rises early, she retires to bed late and in the morning she helps her son do his schoolwork, cooks breakfast, packs lunch, brings him to school, they say their goodbyes then she’s off to work. She works at a local coffee shop, she’s on her feet all day serving others. Then she goes and picks up her son and do the same routine, homework, cook, bath, taking out the garbage. Then by the end of the day she has a second job, she has a second shift. It could be teaching online in college, where she has a higher education, so she often stresses about the finances, the days are difficult if her kids get sick. A routine visit to pediatrics could still be an out of pocket payment of a few hundred dollars. I think it’s taxing to get the child care, as the summer months come up and school holidays, it’s even harder to find child care. To a degree in many single parent families the father is involved in some way, but that’s still hard for that family to negotiate that relationship. So at the end of the day it’s a full day and that’s really what the triple bind is. This is a single parent who really cares about her children but she’s really facing all these factors all at once.

And what’s so exceptional, this can be a typical family in the United States, what’s really exceptional in the United States is that single parent families, we have the highest rate of poverty. And I wrote a report called “Worst Off” with Tim Casey and Legal Momentum, and at that time it was called “Worst Off: Single Parents Against 16 Different Countries” in terms of the poverty rate. And with this book, it’s single parent families are worst off in more than 40 countries. So American single parents have it so difficult to get by because of such high poverty rates.

VALLAS: And just that that one piece of evidence itself is so damning and so completely flips the conversation on its head. It’s not that there’s something wrong with the single parents and their families, clearly there’s something else going on, possibly a lot of something elses, what are those something elses?

NIEUWENHUIS: To begin with, what is often said, well just get a job. And of course a job can be something great, it can allow you, a job can be so much more than a paycheck. But very often and again particularly in the United States, the paycheck is just too small. So single parents in the United States, they work very hard, the employment rate is very high but they often have two jobs and they combine jobs and they have very irregular, precarious, uncertain low paid jobs. No wonder it’s difficult to make ends meet. So you need to understand that in addition to the example of education. But then in addition to that, so it’s not just the education, it’s not just a job, the question still is what is done. Well a very likely candidate of course is policies and regulations. And we show in the book based on over 40 countries, it’s systematic research, we have millions of families, a database with millions of families that are included in the book, represented in the book from all these countries. And then what we show is policies can make a huge difference and what is important to understand, it’s not simply giving benefits to other families, although those are still very important, policies can be so much more and debate on policies should be so much broader. Because if you think about policies that facilitate work, so paid leave, child care, unemployment protection, unemployment benefits, those kinds of policies. Well, unemployment benefit of course, [INAUDIBLE] benefit but those public services to families, they not only allow more single parents to be employed but they also allow them to be unemployment in better jobs. Better paying, associated with better health for themselves, they feel better of the experience of work/family balance, those kinds of things. And they have the opportunity to invest in their job because childcare is available, it’s affordable and it’s of sufficient quality. And these policies really make a difference for single parent families and of course for many other families as well. Facilitate their employment and it includes if the policies are indeed available for everyone and if it’s affordable it includes families of all levels of education, adequate or at least more adequate jobs. So when you take the education, the employment and the policy available to single parents together, then you start seeing what is so different, what is so exceptional in this case about these United States of America.

VALLAS: And you just walked through some pretty basic things that progressives in this country, and I say progressives because unfortunately this debate has been partisan for a long time, but progressives have been asking for, have been fighting for generations. But that all too often I think that people forget the absence of those policies and protections, common sense though they are and widely popular when you actually ask the American people, not the American politicians but the people what they want, everyone wants all of those things, childcare, paid leave, paid sick days, unemployment protections, these are things that poll off the charts and yet it seems to be that the United States of America even in 2018 can’t get it’s act together to catch up with where the developed world has been for a long time.

MALDONADO: I mean talk about paid leave in the United States, the United States being one of the only countries out of 4 in the world that don’t have a federal paid leave policy, where we know with the research that paid leave helps all families, but single parents, it reduces their poverty by so much. So that’s like one thing the United States can do, you can see that’s happening on state and city levels. But really that’s a huge benefit. It’s what your saying, policies being for all families but then they help single parent families too.

VALLAS: The concept of targeted universalism.

MALDONADO: Exactly, exactly. I hear the US is behind on a lot, even when we talk about paid leave, haven’t even talked about leave for fathers, and if you look at these other countries, they have leave for fathers too. And if you were thinking about the long term for single parent families, they are single mothers but really you want both parents to be involved in the caring and providing of their children. So this idea of gender policies really resonates and is really important for these other policies and that’s why these families are doing so much better.

VALLAS: So let’s get a little bit more concrete. Because we talked about there are a lot of other countries doing things differently than here but would love to hear you share a few examples of some of the other countries that are doing it right and where single parent families are actually able to thrive.

NIEUWENHUIS: That’s a very good idea because the general story, more childcare, more leave, more protection, the general story is well known. But of course when you really start looking at implementation of countries, of course it matters how you provide these kinds of policies. So for instance, childcare in Sweden just as an example, it is extremely affordable, families pay 3% of their gross household incomes, so 3% of their pay maximum. So there’s even a cap on it and that’s only for the first child the second child is 2%, and then the third and further is 1%, so childcare is extremely affordable, you have the right for a spot, so you can call your municipality and say I’m expecting a baby or I have a child, give me a spot, and they have to do that. And the quality is incredible high and in terms of universalism, there is no such thing as cheap or expensive childcare in Sweden. So it is guaranteed and it is funded and if you earn more you contribute a little bit more yourself as well. So that is really important. children all have the same or at least similar experience in terms of quality of the childcare and availability. Another thing, really important in child care in Sweden, it’s unconditional. It’s a right for the child, it’s considered a very good thing. In Sweden if you lose your job, whether or not it’s your own fault but if you lose your job you don’t lose your healthcare, you don’t lose your education, you don’t lose your child care and that matters a great deal I think for families. And also it matters a great deal for families to get back into the labor market, to reconsider, to go back into school, to retrain or simply to find a new position. It makes that so much more easy. When we talk about, you hinted at that Laurie on the parental leave there is no such thing as leave in Sweden for farmers or for mothers. There’s just parental leave, every parent gets leave, part of that you can transfer from one parent to the other but there is certain months at this point it’s three months per parent that are reserved for the parents. So fathers and mothers have to use those three months, well paid leave or you lose the right as a family for that child. So fathers do take leave, slightly less than mothers still but implementing these months has been very effective in making fathers take leave. And it’s the normalest thing that families do that. We have in the book a chapter shows that fathers who are separated from the mother of their child still take leave because they can and because it’s considered a good thing to do so.

MALDONADO: And that’s just an example of a policy supporting a single parent family, separated families. These two parents have to agree on how to share the leave. And it’s policy is bringing the families together. And if you look at a lot of the US policies, if you took child support, that at times can pit parents against each other and it’s not helping the whole family. So while some of these things are necessary it’s just this idea of the design of the policy that’s really supporting both parents being involved and they have to agree or else they’ll lose it, it really benefits the children.


VALLAS: And we’re talking about policy but there’s also a culture component that you can’t ignore. And I tee’d that up at the top of this conversation in terms of how the concept of single motherhood in the US has been framed for so long that just even saying ‘single mom’ is an epithet, I wish I were exaggerating. But baked into this is something else that makes the US somewhat exceptional itself which is not even just the policy landscape but it’s the very obsession with marriage as the starting point and if you’re not married there’s something wrong with you. That’s not something we see in other countries.

NIEUWENHUIS: Definitely. And this comes back to your point, one of the most interesting critiques I got back from a Swedish colleague is what do you mean by single parents, the fathers are still involved after they’re separated, what are you talking about? Why [do] you make so big of a deal out of it? And of course he was trying to make a point but it is, it really shows a very different perspective. So the idea that the government should say who to marry or to marry or with whom to live or love, it’s a very outlandish idea.

VALLAS: Let alone to draft policies that are actually incentives and promotion of the institution of marriage which has a long history yeah.

NIEUWENHUIS: Definitely, just wait.


MALDONADO: I just laugh when you said that because I had given a talk at the University of Iceland and it was called “Single Parent Families” and nobody knew what it was about. I was like oh, ok this is cohabitation, these are separated families and I was like ok, even the terminology, be willing to think about that in the US because it’s really, that particular face is really demonized. And what we’re really about and I think what the book is really about is embracing the diversity of family and embracing that family is changing and all families need to be support, right. And I think that’s a larger policy agenda.

NIEUWENHUIS: Yes, exactly, calling it weird and taking a normative stance on these kinds of approaches in one thing but from actual research we know it’s very ineffective. We know that if most single parents were to, when they had their children, we know that were they not separated, they would still be in poverty. And there have been initiatives called building strong families, marriage training, to support families to stay together and to have healthy relationships. And those have been evaluated and the results show that these programs, they’re very expensive and they accomplish exactly nothing. So irrespective of your normative position in this debate, it’s not effective.

VALLAS: So we’re having a conversation about a subject that you can’t really talk about without also identified and calling out the enormously gendered component as well as the racialized component of this, how do gender and race play into the research that you have in this anthology?

MALDONADO: When I think of that and I often will have my students, describe to me the single parent in the grocery store with two kids, and what will that look like. And invariably it’s like she’s black, she’s lazy, her kids are uncontrolled, what was she doing sleeping around with those men and that is sort of the public’s image, that idea of the welfare queen and we can talk about we don’t use that anymore –

VALLAS: That was always a myth.

MALDONADO: It was always a myth.

VALLAS: And I feel like every time it comes up I have to say that loudly.

MALDONADO: Yeah but the way it’s internalized in the sense of blaming single parents, it is very much gendered and racialized, in the united states I feel like it’s put a stop on progressive policies happening because anytime I mention my research to someone in the public they’re like oh well they’re lazy or they should have gotten married, get a job and all of these things. And I’m like they have a job.

VALLAS: They probably have two jobs.

MALDONADO: They probably have two jobs. They work long hours. So it’s this perception, even that perception of people on welfare that are lazy and black, I’m like well actually the largest proportion of people receiving welfare TANF is white women and children. So it’s shifting these perceptions a lot but really trying to have a much more progressive view of what single parents are, that could also be reframing and renaming but a lot of people have single parent families in their lives, their mothers were single parents. We have Barack Obama, we’ve got a lot of leaders that were children of single parent families. So I’m hopeful that will change as there’s an increase, a real big increase in our families being single parent families in the United States. And hopefully we’ll move to more of cohabitation or of recognizing these other family types.

NIEUWENHUIS: Yes, I think also in the three elements of the triple bind, I think gender inequality is very clearly represented. For a very long time women performed less well in school, well that’s not really true, they had less access to school and higher education, that’s changing rapidly but of course the image still exists. And in all the generations it actually was the case. Of course women face enormous motherhood and gender penalties, wage penalties in the labor market. And I [INAUDIBLE] policies supporting the employment of women but sometimes in some countries there’s really policies that inforce the traditional breadwinner model with tax structures and tax incentives and extremely long periods of parental leads, so women really leave the labor market for years before their return and they return for lower wages. So these things of course affect all women but if they then find themselves as a single parent for various reasons, then they face gender disadvantages that were really created by not just the public opinion, that plays a role in it, but also what’s happening on the labor market and also what’s happening in how policies are designed, what kind of families those policymakers had in mind. So everything about single parenthood and also about the triple bind is very gendered.

VALLAS: So the anthology’s a collection of 21 different chapters and organized as I mentioned along the three areas of resources, of employment and of policies. Was there anything that you found editing this collection that surprised you?

MALDONADO: Oh my goodness.

NIEUWENHUIS: One of the many things that surprised me, we talked about before is that fathers in Sweden take leave even if they’re separated. That was such a strong finding that I wasn’t expecting. Finding that really bothers me, almost keeps me up at night is that [INAUDIBLE] colleagues is showing that to keep work incetives for single parents and for other family types the idea is the minimum income protection, social assistance should be lower than the minimum wage. But those minimum wages have been decreasing so the minimum income protection levels have had to decline from a certain economic perspective in order to maintain those incentives. So what you see is that the governments do spend quite a bit of money in many European countries but to supporting the working using programs like the EITC in the United States for instance, so they have a minimum wage but that’s not enough to avoid poverty so they avoid top ups or they get tax discounts. But then those who do not have a job, they are further and further behind and that’s structural. So what’s happening on the labor market forces policymakers to make different decisions at the disadvantage for instance of single parents and that’s a worrisome development I would say.

MALDONADO: That chapter does keep me awake because it really raise alarm bells like countries, even countries when we’re comparing US to these other countries and they’re models that are still challenges as well. I think it’s interesting, there’s two chapters where most of the body of comparative research is on single parent families in poverty. And we’ve done [INAUDIBLE] poverty but we’ve really looked at the middle class and wealth. So I was surprised by looking at the middle class, it looks a little bit different and single parents reach the middle class in countries that have these family work policies so that’s really helping as well as there’s these unions and collective bargainings, I thought that was really interesting and a nuance to the literature and was hopeful for me. Another chapter which is the wealth chapter and boy, when you look at poverty among single parents and I told you in the US how challenging it is, when you look at wealth or really the lack of accumulation for single parent families, when you make that switch that it was really, the results are really stark for the United States. So I was always concerned about high poverty rates so I was like wow I should really be concerned about the low accumulation of wealth that our single parent families have. And yes homeownership can really help with that, but those were really raising big concerns for me as well.

VALLAS: So basically it isn’t just a conversation about single parent families who are what we would consider poor in the United States, other countries have their various definitions that I’m sure are more adequate than ours at describing hardship but it’s that there’s a lot more going on as you describe and just how much you have in the bank.

MALDONADO: Absolutely.

VALLAS: So where are you hoping in the last couple minutes that I have with you both, where are you hoping that things go from the release of this book? What’s the goal in getting this out there and not just in the US but obviously this is an international set of comparisons. What are the goals here?

NIEUWENHUIS: Well one experience I had recently was to advise on a policy evaluation in Belgium and it was a program to support poor single mothers. And there was much to like about that program but there very strong focus on the idea that single parents had to be empowered without the very clear definition of what that actually was and to some extent that is very strongly blaming the victim and the single parents that I do know and of course are chosen in our book as well, they are empowered, they are incredible empowered because they have to do everything themselves. They have to care for their children and they have to manage their school activities, the extracurricular activities, their job or jobs. They are empowered very often. So what my contribution in that evaluation has been and it was very strongly based on the book and I hope the book with do that more often is to explain it’s not just about the single parents themselves. They live in a context and that context really really matters. Whether it’s the employment or the labor market or the social policies. And they’re not the solution to everything but they need to be included in the conversation.

MALDONADO: I agree too. We really want to get the book in the hands of policymakers and we’ve had some exciting, with the EU reports, it’s great to hear the poverty minister in Belgium talk about the triple bind. We’re seeing some of that in Europe. We’ve been cited in UN reports so that’s exciting. But what’s actually really moving for me is triple bind, the book is free, don’t buy it, read it, a single parent can read it and download it so the accessibility is really important and really if you think about the triple bind it’s really not about blaming single parent families, it’s about putting the focus on improving employment and improving policies and I think that really gives a lot of strength to these families. I’m hoping to communicate that message as well.

VALLAS: I’ve been speaking with Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie Maldonado. They are the editors of the “The Triple Bind of Single Parent Families”. You heard them say it, don’t buy the book, but read it and the link is on our nerdy syllabus page as you I’m sure expected throughout this conversation. It’s been such a pleasure speaking with both of you and I can only hope that people take this and think very hard about the fact that we can do things completely differently in this country and find very, very different outcomes.

NIEUWENHUIS: Thank you very much for having us.

MALDONADO: Thank you for having us.

VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s episode of Off Kilter, powered by the Center for American Progress Action Fund. I’m your host, Rebecca Vallas, the show is produced each week by Will Urquhart. Find us on Facebook and Twitter @offkiltershow and you can find us on the airwaves on the Progressive Voices Network and the WeAct Radio Network or anytime as a podcast on iTunes. See you next week.

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