Mom with stroller

Credit: Ed Yourdon on Flickr, under Creative Commons

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–When he left the house, he walked down the street and passed by where William and Francis were playing, but he did not say a word. Rose was left with the job of telling them that their father was gone.

This sentence is embedded in the biography of my grandmother Rose, written by my aunt. William and Francis are my uncles. Not recorded is where my mother, then 3 years old, was at that moment in 1916. My grandfather Louis was not heard from again.

To me, my grandfather’s abandonment of his family is a metaphor for the massive disinvestment 80 years later by the federal and state governments in support of mothers managing alone and the resulting economic devastation on the lives of millions of mothers and their children. The total of funds lost from federal programs and uncollected child support runs in the billions and the federal support of single parents has shrunk by more than half.

Like my grandfather, the political leadership who supported this change walked away from financial obligations to support families and ignored the children who were being abandoned.

Even so, each time I run across a study, news report or column examining the effects of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty of 1964, I notice that they have excluded the enormous rollback in support of single heads of households since that year.

When the poverty of mothers raising children alone is addressed, such as in Maria Shriver’s most recent report, "A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink," the discussion is focused on women’s wages or the failure of poor people to live in stable marriages. Ignored almost without exception is the central fact that in 1996 the federal welfare law changed, leading to a precipitous drop in cash support for families headed by women and the related climb in the numbers of poor children. What single mothers raising children need is enough money to do so and paid employment for most simply won’t be sufficient.

If this nation is sincere about reducing poverty, the first step must be to change our national commitment to supporting single heads of households, replacing at least some of the income a second parent should but doesn’t provide.

Most Moms in Work Force

The majority of U.S. mothers, married or not, with children under age 18 are in the labor force: 70 percent of those with children under the age of 18 are working outside the home; 57 percent of mothers with infants are too.

While many single mothers are high-earners, the vast majority are not. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report indicates 67 percent of single mothers are employed, while in households headed by married couples, 59 percent of both parents are employed outside the home. Legal Momentum, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization, reports that 87 percent of single mothers work outside the home 30 or more hours a week.

When you count the number of employed single heads of households, it is clear that at least two-thirds are working outside the home.

Paid employment alone, however, will not eliminate poverty among families headed by women, not only because women earn less and nearly always pay for child care, but also, in the current economy–not that of the 1950s–two adult earners are needed to support a household with children. That is just a fact.

Using 50 percent of median income as the standard for measuring poverty, U.S. children in single mother families have a poverty rate of 63 percent when only parental earnings are considered, according to Legal Momentum’s Tim Casey, a senior attorney, and Laurie Maldonado, research associate of the Luxembourg Income Study Center at the Graduate Center City University of New York.

"The reason we have these high poverty rates for single mother families–despite their comparatively high employment rates and high share of full-time workers–is because our income support system is terribly inadequate and there’s a very high rate of low-wage work," Casey told the Nation.

Now, what if the single mothers also received child support, putting their income closer to the households in which the father is bringing home a paycheck too?

How low wage? As Women’s eNews reported in its 2012 series, "She Works Hard for the Money," sponsored by the Ford Foundation: Really low.

Let’s take two examples: Median wages for secretaries in the U.S., 96 percent of whom are female, is $684 a week or $35,000 a year, meaning half of all secretaries earn less. As for cashiers, 90 percent of whom are female, the median weekly wage is $373 or $19,000 a year, according to research by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Changing ‘Welfare’

Up until 1996, "welfare" supporting single mothers was called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That year, AFDC was abandoned and taking its place was a thing called TANF, short for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. The new law focused on new work requirements for single, low-income parents seeking government aid and boosting child support collections. It was a public relations feat for misogynistic elected officials using the nation’s distaste for anyone receiving "welfare," which mainly means single mothers. Promoting change to the nation’s "welfare" laws was also a handy way for elected officials to play the race card, since most Americans wrongly and unfairly, associate "welfare" with African Americans.

In 2011, the total of uncollected child support due in the United States was $14 billion. Billion. Yep. B as in billion. And the total spending for cash supports in 2011 on TANF was $11 billion, down from $23 billion in 1996, when the federal government shut the door on AFDC, according to information posted on federal government websites. Those two numbers, unpaid child support and TANF cash assistance to single mothers, are remarkably similar.

What if we added them together and added the money saved by reducing TANF’s administration costs? This is my rather simple proposal. It is called Minimum Guaranteed Child Support.

Absentee parent pays or not; single custodial partners receive a minimum payment to support their families. It is not ever again referred to as welfare. Let’s face it, the federal and state governments are better equipped to collect the child support on behalf of all single parents, as they have access to social security numbers and tax returns. They also have means to determine who is dead, imprisoned, disabled, unemployed or otherwise unable to pay.

Right now, two government systems co-exist for collecting child support: one on behalf of TANF mothers and one for non-TANF mothers, called IV-D and operated by local county district attorney offices. Collapse them into one system, make it federal and guarantee a monthly minimum payment to single mother headed households regardless of if the absentee parent pays and bam, lift millions of households out of poverty.

It is time for the federal and state lawmakers to stop mimicking the actions of my grandfather and sober up on behalf of the nation, its parents and children.

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