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Single mothers are very often the face of poverty. And one Ohio county has shifted its anti-poverty efforts to address that fact directly. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, Richland County is trying to teach family-building skills, even when families don't live together.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In a cramped public housing apartment in Mansfield, Ohio, Brittiny Spears is getting her daughter and her three cousins outside for some fresh air.

BRITTINY SPEARS: OK, calm down. You all want to race?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Yeah.

SPEARS: OK, on your marks, get set, go.

LUDDEN: Spears is 26, a single mom like just about all her friends, she says. In fact, among women without a college degree, more than half of births are now outside marriage, though this is nothing new for Spears. Her own father had a number of children with different women.

SPEARS: I just knew of his name. I never met him ever in my life. He died before I could even meet him.

LUDDEN: Back inside, as her niece scoots around on a red tricycle, Spears says she's not alone for a lack of offers.

SPEARS: I've been proposed to three times. I just haven't accepted the engagement.

LUDDEN: The last one was from the father of her four-year-old. Spears says it's sad her daughter barely knows her dad. But she wasn't die-hard in love with him. Plus, he had no job, she says, no ambition.

SPEARS: He wasn't trying to do any helping with the kids. He just still wanted to go out and party and be a little boy. And I wasn't wanting that. I already had one kid to take care of. I didn't want to take care of a grown kid, too.

LUDDEN: Understandable. And yet, children of single women are five times as likely to be poor as those of married couples. Spears dropped out of college when she was pregnant. She can't afford to pay back student loans. It's been two years since her last job.

SPEARS: Well, right now I get food stamps to take care of my food. And this is HUD housing so the rent is free. And I get a utility check to pay my bills and it's electric and gas.

JENNIFER JENNETTE: We're seeing the same people come year after year and in some cases, generation to generation. And so then you think, why is that happening?

LUDDEN: Jennifer Jennette is with The Community Action Commission of Erie, Huron and Richland Counties. She says financial assistance alone isn't changing people's lives. What could, she says, is family. At the least, more supportive, stable relationships, even if couples aren't together. So Community Action overhauled its approach this year.

JENNETTE: Now the shift in the focus has turned more to helping people learn a new way of thinking - for that person to look inside themselves as to why their behavior might be the way it is based on how they were raised, and how therefore they can change their mindset to change their behavior.

LUDDEN: That effort has started here - a minimum-security rehab center. Mothers struggling with drug and alcohol addiction meet twice a week for classes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hey, hey, hey.

LUDDEN: Five women gather around a table in the library. Four are white, one biracial - all but one, single mothers. KaTrece Lee of Community Action leads the group.

KATRECE LEE: What do you see your children lacking without having a father in their lives?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 2: Self-respect. Self-esteem

LUDDEN: Lee writes answers on a chalk board and adds more.

LEE: Their low performance in school. They also usually have behavior issues.

LUDDEN: They're also more likely to abuse drugs, commit crimes and, of course, be poor. The discussion then turns to conflict and how to handle it. Research shows chronic conflict between parents, even if they live apart, can harm children's mental health. The women share stories of simmering resentments and shouting matches.

MELISSA STUTZMAN: We were arguing and my eight-year-old daughter goes, you guys don't have to love each other but can't you just like each other a little bit?

LUDDEN: The conversations can be brutally honest. The class feels like group therapy. The women say they love coming here. Melissa Stutzman is a divorced mother of three.

STUTZMAN: I was always a finger pointer. You did this. You didn't do that. Now I'm starting to think well, maybe I had some things to do with it. And maybe I got to look on the inside instead of looking out. Work on me first and worry about him less (Laughing.)

LUDDEN: The county has classes for fathers, too. Organizers say they're not exactly about promoting marriage. The second Bush Administration spent a lot of time and money on that. But studies found the effort largely failed. Jennifer Jennette of Community Action says simply educating parents on how their relationship impacts their child can make a difference.

JENNETTE: If they're not together the goal is better communication. I don't maybe like him. I am maybe not with him anymore. But it's not about me or him, it's about my child. And how do we want to make his life better?

LUDDEN: And if children's lives are better - more emotionally secure, if not financially so, she hopes that can help stop the cycle of poverty for the next generation. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on Morning Edition, Jennifer looks at Richland County's efforts to get fathers more involved with their children even when they don't live with them.

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