Single Mothers And The Cycle Of Poverty

Robert Siegel speaks with Olivia Golden, fellow at the Urban Institute, about why there has been an increase of single mothers who are in poverty.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Joining us now is Olivia Golden. She's a fellow at the Urban Institute here in Washington, D.C. She's also a former assistant secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Welcome to the program.

OLIVIA GOLDEN: Thank you. I'm delighted to be here.

SIEGEL: We just heard Jennifer Stepp's story. She has three kids, ages 10, eight an one, by three different fathers. Typical story of a single mother under the poverty line?

GOLDEN: Well, there's one way that Jennifer is typical which is that she's working and she's facing all the issues of trying to balance work in a low-paying job with also being there for her kids and raising them.

She's not typical in that she has a full-time and steady job. An awful lot of single mothers who are poor or just above the poverty line are working a lot but they're working at shift jobs where the hours are erratic and, you know, some weeks you've got it and some weeks you don't. And typically, jobs that are very inflexible and very hard to combine with raising kids. You get a child sick, you can't miss your work.

SIEGEL: Is the kind of support system and help that she gets, does that strike you as typical of what women in this situation have around the country?

GOLDEN: Well, that was fascinating to me 'cause she really has a terrific support system, given what she's coping with. She has medical assistance. She has food assistance and she has childcare support for her kids. And it's not typical. It's partly she's in Pennsylvania, partly sounds like the particular circumstances. But most places in this country, she probably wouldn't be able to get the medical assistance or the childcare help.

SIEGEL: Well, one reaction that we've been getting from our listeners to our poverty series is the question: Why do so many young women have so many babies if they aren't married and they're struggling already.

GOLDEN: Well, I think there've been lots of debate. But whatever the mother's choice is, whether we like her choices or not, what's key is to try to make sure that those kids have a secure life. And, if we can, to affect the choices that they make about their own lives going forward.

SIEGEL: I mean, 20 years ago, before welfare reform, critics would have said there were incentives to have another child there. That's not the case anymore.

GOLDEN: I think that's right, there are not incentives. And, in fact, single mothers are far more likely to be working, despite how difficult that is to do what's right by your kids.

SIEGEL: Jennifer is 29 years old. When she was in high school, it wasn't the Dark Ages - it was the 1990s. And there was already much discussion about poverty and about finishing high school.

Do you find that being involved in this field, is it Sisyphean to you? I mean, do you find that we say the same things every decade; that we should be teaching young people to stay in school, and defer childbirth until they get married? Is it rolling the stone up the hill?

GOLDEN: Well, that's a great question. I am by nature an optimist, which a person probably has to be...

SIEGEL: You'd better be, yeah. I think so, yeah.

GOLDEN: ...to work on, right - longtime child and family issues. So I look for the places where we've made progress and nationally, like more work by low-income families, like children's health coverage. And I tend to worry a lot about the places where, as a nation, as a community, we are failing our kids because I do worry a lot about the fact that today's generation of children is more likely to be poor than before.

So I guess I think that the choices matter, but so does the framework and that enabling parents to work and support their kids and also be there for their kids as nurturers, able to give them those good choices - that's what we have to aim for. And, if not, those of us who are in our 50s and 60s and looking ahead to the kind of care we're going to need, there's not going to be a new generation of children able to take that up.

SIEGEL: Olivia Golden, thank you very much for talking with us.

GOLDEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Olivia Golden is a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow on our program, we take a look at how one nonprofit that helps low income mothers is, itself, struggling to survive.

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