Hardship Personified: Single Mothers and Single Mothers of Color

The New York Times published an opinion piece recently by several sociologists, essentially saying we shouldn’t demonize single mothers (duh) as the cause of high poverty rates. Fine so far as it goes, but I’ve been finding the opposite construction to be true: Single mothers are disproportionately affected by poverty and living in poverty, especially if they’re also single mothers of color, or have young children, or lack a high school education.

As more cities in America become “majority-minority” cities, too, that should raise specific concerns — given those cities’ particular racial and ethnic compositions. In San Antonio, the nation’s seventh-largest city, this is particularly true. We’ll see why later in the article, but first let’s take a look at the national picture.

Nationwide, households led by single mothers are more likely to be living in poverty, below the federal poverty line — or living in deep poverty, the level of acute hardship characterized by living at 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level. (You can find out what the poverty level is for your state, here.) Overall, across the country, no other household type fares worse when it comes to poverty than households led by single mothers.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

(Notice the above chart, where households led by single mothers experienced greater levels of poverty than any other household type, at every educational level.)

While people are entitled to wonder if single parenting, period, is the problem — assuming that single fathers have it as difficult as single mothers do — the answer is definitively “no.” (If you think about how historically men out-earn women in the U.S., that would make it a non-starter as a question. Yet it continues to be raised.)

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration report.

The chart directly above shows that women in the U.S. are more likely to be poor than men — and single mothers are more than twice as likely as single fathers to be living in poverty.

Now let’s add in the racial and ethnic “penalties” as well, alluded to in the last article in this series, about compound poverty and the “poverty pyramid.”

Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Service Administration report.

The problem gets worse when we start looking at women of color, as the previous chart from the same government source clarifies.

Two young girls enjoy their friendship and exploring the world, despite the hardships frequently experienced by children of color in America, especially in single mother households where they are much more likely to live below the poverty line, or even in deep poverty (half the resources of even poverty level.)

The Parent Trap: The Economic Insecurity of Families with Young Children,” published by the Demos organization, does an exceptional job of laying out the hits to their income that parents of young children (under five years old) take simply by having young children, but then as they add in other factors — if you’re a single parent, if you’re a single mother, or a single mother of color, or less educated— the problem just gets more intense:

“For single parents, who earn on average $22,026 compared to $35,042 (single adults with no children) and $33,179 (single adults with older children), being black or Hispanic as single mothers as black or Hispanic means earning $5,309 (black) and $1,304 (Hispanic) less than single white mothers.”

The topic is important because, as they point out, “women comprise 89 percent of single parent households with young children.” In fact, according to the National Women’s Law Center, more than one in three single mother families lived in poverty in 2015, with higher figures for single-mother families headed by women of color, including Native Americans (48 percent), Hispanics (42 percent) and Blacks (40 percent). Poverty figures for families headed by White (31 percent) and Asian women (24 percent) were noticeably lower, although still high.

Various public policy sources make it clear that women of color historically under-earn compared to White and Asian women, as the marketplace a) pays them less; and b) offers them fewer benefits, including sick time, retirement plans, etc. that allow them to support their families more effectively. (And we haven’t even started talking about income volatility yet, those wide swings in pay affected by inhumane on-demand scheduling, that can throw families into poverty, eviction and bankruptcy. There’s much more about that here. But for our purposes, only note that on-demand scheduling notoriously affects some industries such as retail and hospitality more than others, not coincidentally ones where Hispanics and Blacks are often employed.)

A Fact Sheet on Latinas and the Wage Gap, prepared by the National Partnership for Women & Families, March 2017.

As you can see from the above fact sheet, Hispanic women earn significantly less money than white, non-Hispanic men — 44 cents on the dollar, compared to white, non-Hispanic men in Texas(!) Their analysis concludes that by paying Hispanic women fairly, eliminating this artificial wage gap would result in enough money for Latinas to provide, on an average/national level:

More than three additional years of child care;
More than three additional years of tuition and fees for a four-year public university;
193 more weeks of food for her family;
More than 17 additional months of mortgage and utility payments; and
More than 27 additional months of rent.

(Figures are similar for Black women and Native American women as well, but our focus here is predominantly Hispanic-majority San Antonio.)

San Antonio

So now that we’re more aware of some of the wider societal issues holding single mothers of color back, let’s take a look at how they may combine in a city like San Antonio, with a majority Hispanic population and a proliferation of relatively low-wage service industry jobs thanks to a thriving focus on hospitality and tourism. Racial and ethnic disparities, a frequently cited history of residential and economic segregation which has contributed to generational poverty, and generally low levels of education attainment, especially compared to the nation describe some of the unique barriers experienced by the approximately 20 percent of the city’s residents who live below the poverty level. But that “average” obscures some areas of concentrated disadvantage, especially for single mothers of color and their children, and children of color living in poverty.

When I first started mapping San Antonio’s population characteristics by ZIP Codes using recent Census data, a project that has since won an award from Tableau Public and created a lot of interest locally and even nationally, the very first map showed percentage of population below the poverty level. (The series of more than 250 maps now, separated by themes, has had more than 25K pageviews, and even generates its own fan mail.)

This heat map in Tableau shows the percentages of population below the poverty line in each ZIP Code. Map by Lily Casura.

As you can see from the labels on the map directly above, the percentage of residents below the federal poverty level ranges from a low of 2.10 to a high of 48.30 — or almost one in two. Additionally, that T-shape you see in the center of the map, or maybe a dark T set into a medium dark U-shape or “tongue” shape that continues to the south — is the characteristic distribution for many hardship characteristics in San Antonio, in map after map — and is crystallized in the development of a Hardship Index map.

Young Hispanic girls unfortunately can look forward to under-earning compared to other groups, unless wage equality can be addressed. In Texas, Hispanic women who work full-time and year-round earn 44 cents on the dollar compared to white, non-Hispanic men, according to a fact sheet on “Latinas and the Wage Gap,” prepared by the National Partnership for Women & Families, March 2017.

To be able to affix a number to a concept like poverty does satisfy somewhat, at least initially. You now have a numerical “handle” for beginning a conversation. You can say, “Almost 20 percent of the population (19.8 percent) live in poverty in the city.” And while that’s true — you haven’t developed the concept until you compare it to how that stacks up against the county, the state and even the nation. You obviously want to find out — is it higher, lower, or on a par with other areas — and if it’s significantly different, that starts a different exploration into why. And what it looks like for other populations, like children and seniors.

This heat map in Tableau shows the distribution of childhood poverty in San Antonio. Percent of children below the federal poverty line in each ZIP Code is displayed,, ranging from zero to 75 percent(!). Map by Lily Casura.

As you can see from the above map, the distribution of children in poverty follows the same general pattern, and ranges from a low of 0 percent, to a high of 75 percent(!). (Several ZIP Codes are at 50 percent or above.) Other data indicates that a full three-quarters of children in poverty in the county where San Antonio is located are children of color.)

This chart takes a look at some of the compound poverty experienced by single mothers of color. San Antonio is located in Bexar County, Texas, and makes up about three quarters of its 1.9 million population. Source: State of Texas Children: Race and Equity in San Antonio, 2016, produced by For a Better Texas nonprofit, with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

(The pattern for seniors in poverty is similar, but fortunately there are fewer seniors in poverty, and their poverty levels are lower — thanks to economic supports like retirement incomes and social security. The highest level of poverty for seniors in any ZIP Code is 38 percent.)

Now that you have figures about how it varies from area to area, you can have a deeper conversation about what it means — but you still only have only part of the picture. There’s compound poverty, which we talked about last time.

If you go back to that wonderful line from science writer Paul Brodeur that “statistics are just human beings, with the tears wiped off” — it’s especially concerning what gets lost from a conversation about something as crucial as poverty when you’re talking “averages.” The reality is, poverty isn’t distributed equally — not geographically, and especially not by family type. No matter what slice of the data you’re looking at — locally, regionally or nationally — some family types have the fewest challenges, and some habitually have the most. The “most” category is owned, conclusively and with no serious competition as it were, by single mothers with children, and especially by single mothers of color.

Drilling down

This map shows the percentage of households led by single mothers across San Antonio by ZIP Code. Map by Lily Casura.

It’s possible to plot on a map where households are led by single mothers in San Antonio. There are quite a few ZIP Codes where single mothers lead more than 10 percent of the households. (Notice that it follows that same T-shape inside the U-shape distribution. When I plotted grandparents raising grandchildren, a phenomenon that seems like it should be associated with poverty as well, it did not.) The highest percentage of households led by single mothers in any ZIP Code is 16.3 percent, in 78207.

This map shows the percentage of households led by single mothers which are below the federal poverty line. As you can see, figures range from 0 percent to a high of 22.8 percent. Map by Lily Casura.

But it’s also possible to pull Census Bureau figures on what the percentages are of households led by single mothers that are below the poverty line — and also single dads. That becomes a slight controversy sometimes when people either ascribe moral failure to the “poverty and single mothers” aspect, or alternatively assume that single fathers have it “just as bad, so we should really be talking about ‘single parents.’” Nope, single mothers have it quite a bit worse; though it’s hard for anyone experiencing poverty.

Here’s more about that, both what the “average” figures obscure, and also how it stacks up against the nation.

In San Antonio, currently, “on average,” 8.1 percent of the households in poverty are led by single mothers, and 1.6 percent by single fathers. Yet in more than a dozen ZIP Codes, 16 to be exact, more than 10 percent of the households in poverty are led by single mothers. In 78207, for instance, almost one in four(!) of the households in poverty (22.8 percent) are led by single mothers. That’s more than 11,000 single mothers in poverty, a good one in 10 of all the single mothers in poverty in the city. More expressively, that’s fully half the number of single fathers in poverty (22,000) in the entire city. So whether by percentages, or by raw numbers, we learn that there are about five times as many single mothers living in poverty as single fathers in San Antonio.

The four highest ZIP Codes in San Antonio for percent of single mother-led households which are below the poverty line, as labeled, overlapped with ZIP Codes where at least 50 percent of children in the ZIP Code are below poverty. The ZIP Codes in question are, clockwise from left, 78237, 78207, 78202 and 78203. Map by Lily Casura.

By using the “slider” tools in Tableau (located to the right of most of the maps in this series), you can further narrow down overlapping concepts to find yet more concentrated vulnerability. The above four ZIP Codes have both high percentages of households in poverty led by single mothers and are areas marked by more than 50 percent of children living in poverty. Those four ZIPs, 78202, 78203, 78207 and 78237 , are not coincidentally also the four highest-hardship ZIP Codes in the city. (More about the Hardship Index here, which coincides strongly with the Distressed Communities Index, but with a bigger emphasis on social vulnerability.)

So what does this all mean?

By exploring the data in greater depth, and combining that with a deep dive into the related research — journal articles, white papers and policy briefs about poverty — you learn that finding a number to affix to poverty, “Oh, such and such in this ZIP Code” — is really just a starting place. When you start conceptualizing overlap and especially compound poverty and the barriers to people of color — single parents and single mothers especially, and their children who are often living in poverty as well — you start to get a much more three-dimensional picture of what poverty means in a community, and where more attention can and should be paid.

And then can raise some important questions about what to do next.

Is more outreach needed, to bring individuals and families greater access to services?
Are the current services effective in meeting needs? Do they need to be enhanced, perhaps by adding more supports for child care and public transportation?
Or are different services needed, which have yet to be developed?
Will these services need to cross domains of need, or perhaps combine services provided by various agencies and nonprofits, in novel but potentially more effective ways?

Most of all, now that we have — I hope — a more comprehensive look at who’s the most poor and consequently the most vulnerable — can we literally “plant the flag” and pledge to always include single mothers of color, and their children, in every conversation we have about equity? Dreams of a successful future, free from or at least with reduced barriers to success for all people, should be part of the “picture,” especially for majority-minority cities in America, going forward.

We can start that conversation now.