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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. We're reporting on poverty this week, on the program. And today, we have the second part in our series - a story about single mothers. Households headed by single moms are four times as likely to be poor as families headed by married couples. And they face many hurdles in their efforts to get ahead.

SIEGEL: Support comes from a variety of sources. When we talk about the safety net, we usually think of government programs: food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare. But the safety net is much more: charities, churches, family, friends, personal drive and ambition, even luck.

Today, NPR's Pam Fessler profiles one single mother who's trying to pull herself up, using all the bits and pieces that families draw on to survive.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Jennifer Stepp is 29. She has three children by three different fathers. She thought the relationships would lead to something permanent, but they didn't. The father of her eldest son, 10-year-old Isaiah...

JENNIFER STEPP: He's serving 30 years in federal prison for armed robbery. He's met my son one time, when he was a baby. And he decided that he didn't want him.

FESSLER: And 8-year-old Shyanne's dad?

STEPP: He gets her every other weekend, usually. So he's there; he's pretty good. And then my youngest - he's also in prison.

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: For selling cocaine. He's been behind bars since she was pregnant. So he's never met his son, 1-year-old Makai.

STEPP: He writes letters back and forth, and he wants to be a part of his son's life. I'm just waiting for him to get out and get his life together.

FESSLER: Looking back, Jennifer admits she was the victim of youthful optimism. She kept thinking that the next guy had to be better than the last. She's a lot wiser now.

STEPP: Put your listening ears on. This book is called "My Favorite Bear."

FESSLER: She's trying to get her life on track. Like 14 million single mothers and children in the U.S., Jennifer is poor. And single mothers can have the toughest time escaping poverty - raising kids on their own; with cuts in government aid, and a shortage of well-paying jobs.

STEPP: (Reading) Some bears eat fish.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Eww.

STEPP: You know how they catch the fish in the water?

FESSLER: Today, Jennifer is reading to preschoolers at the Second Street Learning Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, where she works full time.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Did the...

STEPP: They scoop them up from the water.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Do the fish...

FESSLER: She's girlish-looking, with bits of short, brown hair pulled into ponytails; a butterfly tattooed on her ankle. But she's serious, determined. Jennifer knows she's kind of stuck. She's worked here for almost eight years, and still earns less than $9 an hour.

STEPP: Being a head assistant, I can't go any further without some kind of degree.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLOSING DOORS)

FESSLER: Which is why. two nights a week after work, Jennifer and several colleagues pile into her battered, blue station wagon and drive to a nearby school. They're trying to earn associate degrees in early childhood education from the local community college. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Stepp and her colleagues are attending Harcum College.]

(SOUNDBITE OF IGNITION)

FESSLER: If their grades are good, their employer - a nonprofit called Opportunity House - will help with tuition. If they graduate, they can get a raise.

And here's where that safety net thing really comes into play. While Jennifer is at night school, her three kids are back at the learning center. It's the only place in Reading that provides round-the-clock day care for low-income parents. While her kids are eating grilled-cheese sandwiches and carrots...

STEPP: We're having stromboli today for dinner - think it's chicken and cheese stromboli.

FESSLER: Jennifer and her classmates are having dinner provided by their school. She can thank Isamac Figueroa for that. She's with I-Lead, the nonprofit that runs the program. Figueroa says their typical student is a single mother, with either a full- or a part-time job.

ISAMAC FIGUEROA: And for us to believe that she's going to be able to get home from work; hurry, scurry, and get some dinner ready for the kids and come to school, is just not a reality for our students.

FESSLER: And they're trying to make college possible for those who might not otherwise have a shot. That's especially important here in Reading. Last year, this city had the highest poverty rate of any city over 65,000.

FIGUEROA: Autism, with Bernadette and Jennifer, will be first.

FESSLER: Tonight, Jennifer and her colleagues are making presentations in class. Jennifer hopes to get her degree in two years, and then go for her bachelor's, and maybe someday open a day-care center of her own.

Class gets out around 9. Jennifer rubs her eyes, trying not to yawn. It's been a long day. She was up at 6:30, got the kids to school and day care, then worked all day.

STEPP: OK, I'm ready.

FESSLER: And it's not over yet. She now has to drive back to the day-care center. First, she goes into the nursery to get little Makai, her 1-year-old.

STEPP: Hey, baby. Can you say hi?

FESSLER: Then it's off to gather up the other two.

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: Jennifer keeps a picture of all three of her children on the cover of her school binder. So when she's tired and overwhelmed, she remembers why she's doing this. She has to remind the kids, too, why their lives are so hectic.

STEPP: And I explain to them that I'm doing it for them, not for me. So later on, down the road, we can have a comfortable life and a nice house. I try to make it look pretty for them. Nice house and with a dog and a front yard for yous to play in.

(LAUGHTER)

FESSLER: Now, Jennifer and her children live in a three-bedroom apartment in the city. Her employer, Opportunity House, pays half the rent to help her get ahead.

Jennifer says her parents also struggled, and they didn't really show her how to apply for a job or to college. She had to figure it out herself. It's common for those who grow up in low-income families, to stay that way as adults.

STEPP: Isaiah, can you get your homework out for me?

FESSLER: Still, Jennifer's safety net is pretty broad. Her mother will stop by later tonight, to help put the kids to bed. Jennifer is also getting food stamps and medical aid for the kids.

STEPP: That's OK.

FESSLER: It bothers her that single mothers sometimes have a bad name; that people think they just have babies and collect welfare.

STEPP: I'm the opposite, and I know there's some other single mothers out there that are also the opposite. They try hard and sometimes, it's just not hard enough. You need that help.

FESSLER: She knows without it, the odds are definitely stacked against her.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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