In fall of 2009 Specialist Alexis Hutchinson, a 21-year-old Army cook and single parent, was days from deploying to Afghanistan for a year when her mother backed out of an agreement to take care of her 10-month-old son for the duration of her tour. Her mother, Angelique Hughes, had a child of her own at home and was also caring for a sick sister while running a day care from her home in California. Feeling overwhelmed, Ms. Hughes took the boy back to Georgia, where Specialist Hutchinson was based, and begged her to find someone else.
Specialist Hutchinson chose to stay home with her son and missed her flight to Afghanistan. She was arrested and later charged with offenses that could have led to a court-martial and jail time. She eventually received an other-than-honorable discharge, ending an incident that surprised many legal experts and spurred debate within military circles. (Dao, 2010) Why did this story make news? What was odd about this young woman refusing to go to war when thousands of single mothers have gone off to war in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001?
I think it became a story because it highlighted a larger national problem that I’ve witnessed of single female parents who had to make hard choices for the welfare of their children because of their job (employment). My aim is to discuss the difficulties associated with single parenthood and how it affects childcare and employment. Lastly, I’ll focus on two solutions that will help alleviate this problem The last snapshot of the American family, taken by the U. S. Census Bureau in 2000, looked markedly different from previous years.
Divorced parents, stepparents, adoptive parents, unmarried biological parents who live together, gay parents, and single parents raising a child on their own- all add up to the most astonishing revelation: The “typical” family of married parents and their biological children accounts for fewer than a quarter of all U. S. households. Almost a third of all children in the U. S. (20 million) are growing up in single parent homes, more than 80 percent of them headed by single moms. Since 1990 the number of households headed by single mothers has increased more than three times faster than the number of married two parent homes.
Unlike celebrity single mothers, these moms still struggle to pay the rent and the daycare bill and can be an inner-city teen, a fortysomething suburban mom or anyone in between. Divorce is still the most common way in which women become single parents, but that’s also changing. Today, over 40 percent of single mothers have never been married, and they’re becoming parents in ways that reflect a significant cultural shift in attitude. (Renkl, 2001) Single-parent families in today’s society have their share of daily struggles and long-term disadvantages.
The issues of expensive day care, shortage of quality time with children, balance of work and home duties, and economic struggle are among the seemingly endless problems these families must solve. Because many single-parent households are female-headed, their economic burden is much greater than that of a single-father family. This issue results from the fact that single women typically do not earn the same income as a single man; thus, there is a consequent economic struggle not experienced in the single-father household. An offshoot of this economic struggle is the balance of work and family duties.
Single mothers often work overtime shifts to compensate for low salaries, thus taking time away from their children and other domestic chores. This results in a child that is home alone, without adult supervision, or placed in a daycare service for up to 8 to10 hours per day for large fees for this service. A great majority of singe parents raise children with less income and time than two-parent families. For most single parents, child care is a necessary work-related expense, but couples with a caregiver partner can choose to do without that expense. Limited access to affordable child care affects single parents more than anyone.
The lack of access to child care is one of the reasons why single parents work part-time or in non- standard jobs which provide few benefits. The wages single mothers command in the labor market are at best modest. Wages for single mothers with less than a high school degree averaged $7. 83 in the city, a pay rate that even with full-time, year-around work could not lift a family of three above the federal poverty line ($14,269 in 2001). In fact, low wages, less than steady full-time work, and an inadequate system of supplemental income support combine to produce high rates of poverty in families headed by employed single mothers.
One reason why escaping poverty is so difficult for the families of working single mothers is that a majority of them are employed in service sectors. Many of these jobs are in clerical work or health care, characterized by high turnover, low pay, and few employer-provided benefits. (Jones, 2002) More than half of preschool-age children attend preprimary school before entering elementary school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2006), and the number of public prekindergarten programs continues to grow.
Although pre-k attendance is beneficial for children’s academic achievement (Magnuson, Ruhm, & Waldfogel, 2007), most pre-k and Head Start programs offer part-day, school-year services to 3- and 4-year-olds only, which do not address the needs of parents working full-time. In 2005, 54% of mothers with children under 1 year of age were employed, and nearly 70% of employed mothers with children under 6 worked at least 35 hours per week (U. S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics). Some research suggests that this contributes to single parents’ stress and poor employment outcomes (Chaudry, 2004; Scott et al. , 2005).
Informal caregivers may be also overburdened, as many families rely on them to provide transportation between care arrangements and child care and home. Extended-hours or full-day programs may decrease parent stress and enhance communication and continuity among programs to provide more seamless transitions for children. (Morrissey, 2008) In 1991, just over one-half (55 percent) of never married mothers with children less than 13 years of age were employed; by 1996, 70 percent were in the workforce (authors’ calculations, Current Population Survey, U. S. Census). This increase is all the more striking given that the employment ate of single women without children under 13 remained nearly stable, at about 90 percent, during this same period. Major changes to federal cash assistance policy began in 1988 with the passage of the Family Support Act (FSA); the result was more stringent work requirements on welfare recipients and families leaving welfare for employment. Beginning in the early 1990s, states initiated other policy changes-designed to discourage women from entering the welfare system and to encourage those in the system to move from welfare to work-under waivers from the laws governing the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.
These state reforms laid the groundwork for the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which replaced AFDC with a new time-limited program, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). PRWORA ended the federal entitlement to cash assistance for low-income single mother families with children and made it very difficult for single mothers to receive cash assistance without working. During this same period, federal and state policy officials expanded a number of programs designed to support the employment of low-income parents.
The expansion of child care assistance was particularly notable. However these changes have not been sufficient to impact employment in a notable way. (Bainbridge, Meyers, Waldfogel, 2003). Results suggest that child care subsidies result in about a 7 percentage point increase in the probability of working at a standard job. The findings suggest that child care subsidies induce mothers to work at standard jobs. Specifically, single mothers with a child care subsidy are about seven percentage points more likely to work standard hours than others, all else being equal.
These results underscore the importance of child care subsidies in helping single parents, find jobs with a potential for long-term economic self-sufficiency. (Tekin, 2007) A growing body of research suggests that public policies can encourage employment among single mothers by “making work pay” through reductions in tax burdens and child care costs. These supportive policies appear to have stronger effects than more punitive policies, such as reductions in welfare benefits and imposition of sanctions for noncompliance with welfare rules. (Bainbridge, Meyers, Waldfogel, 2003)
An important part of reducing single parenthood is to focus on childbearing outside of marriage. If we want to ensure that more children grow up with married parents, we must first insure that more women reach adulthood before they have children. This is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for success. It implies redoubling efforts to prevent teen pregnancy. And it means convincing young men and women who have not yet had a baby that there is much to lose if they enter parenthood prematurely, and much to gain if they wait until they are married. (Sawhill, 2002)
In my fifteen years in the military, I’ve met and worked with several “Specialist Hutchinson’s” who struggled to fulfill their dual role as military member and mother. Often they were allowed more leeway and privileges compared to other military members. These women were more likely to be out sick, require extra time from work for childcare issues and were unreliable for early reporting (i. e. recalls) or to work late. They are less likely (in the Air Force) to deploy or be sent on temporary duty assignments (TDY’s), which places a burden on others in the workplace.
Specialist Hutchinson’s case surprised me because more than 30,000 single mothers have deployed to the two most recent wars, according to a study by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. This incident highlighted single parenthood and its effects beyond the immediate family arena. The repercussions being a single mother reverberate to affect the workplace and more significantly the long term health and welfare of both mother and child. Hopefully, social policies to reduce teen pregnancies or childbearing outside of marriages coupled with increased subsidies to get single mothers into the workforce will alleviate this burden.