Addressing poverty requires holistic approach

Being poor is an all-encompassing trap

Alone, poor, and guilty. Guilty of poverty itself and its toxic effects. That’s still the way single mothers are cast today because in our culture it’s “her baby, her fault.”

There are 10 million single mothers in the United States today. Forty percent of them live below the federal poverty line, a line that is already so far below the actual requirements of self-sufficiency that the federal government has to inflate it when determining need for government assistance. Poverty is not simply a matter of living with less luxury; it’s an all-encompassing trap that destroys pride, optimism, and self-esteem. It locks people in vicious cycles in which every last ounce of energy is focused on getting by with none left over for getting ahead. Poverty obscures the routes to self-sufficiency by infecting and isolating entire communities so children grow up never knowing what success looks like or being able to realistically imagine themselves as achievers.

Furthermore, poverty isn’t exclusively a lack of resources in your home. It imprints itself in your body and brain. Consider the work done by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child, who is using neurological brain scans to demonstrate how babies and young children born into the high-stress environments that poverty produces have significantly altered brain development. The alterations affect their ability to organize and evaluate information. While these are effects that can be ameliorated with the right interventions, it’s yet another obstacle burdening low-income people.

Consider what it takes for a single mother – the mother with one child or many more – to climb out of poverty carrying her children along with her. According to the Crittenton Women’s Union’s 2013 Massachusetts Economic Independence Index, if the mother lives in Massachusetts and has one preschool and one school-age child she needs to earn $65,880 annually to support herself and her children without government assistance. That translates to $31.55 per hour. The minimum wage in Massachusetts is only $8 per hour. That’s a big gap between an entry-level minimum-wage job and what the single mother needs to make ends meet.

The jobs that pay self-sufficient wages require education and training. Increasingly, an associate’s degree or more is a fundamental requirement if one is going to support a family. And education itself is an expensive investment, one that not everyone can manage while simultaneously putting food on the table for a family. But if you decide to try, if you decide to pursue those ambitious goals of attaining a degree and a family-sustaining job, there are still more sink holes. There’s the fear that you simply aren’t smart enough, good enough, deserving enough – a fear that has been instilled in you through years of being poor, a fear that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The lives of low-income single mothers are complicated to say the least, and the US government does not provide clear, supportive paths toward economic independence. However, understanding the challenge in all its complexity means that we can also generate solutions. The solutions are necessarily complex and fly in the face of the familiar mantras of simplistic blame that shout, “Just get a job.”

Some specific strategies to enable mothers to move themselves and their families to economic independence include investing in support for low-income parents so they can successfully complete post-secondary education leading to family-sustaining jobs. We can do this by placing college-success counselors at all community colleges to help this population graduate in a timely fashion. We should continue funding the Massachusetts High Demand Scholarship Program for students at public colleges and universities who are preparing for high-demand occupations. We also need to make public and private investments in anti-poverty programs with proven success rates at moving low-income single parents to a point of economic self-sufficiency.

Real solutions require long-term holistic approaches based on current research on the cost of living, labor market analysis on where the jobs are, and comprehensive mentoring approaches, such as Crittenton Women’s Unions Mobility Mentoring, which coach women on how to set realistic self-sufficiency goals and support them each step of the way until they actually achieve them.

Meet the Author
It doesn’t take weeks. It takes years. But imagine the possibilities to be free from poverty and its toxic effects.

Deborah Connolly Youngblood is the vice president of research and innovation at Crittenton Women’s Union.