Jenn, a 34-year-old single mother from Mississippi, moved to North Carolina in 2012 with the hope of building a better life for her two sons, ages 10 and 4. But a year later, after losing their apartment when she could not make the rent, her boys became one of North Carolina’s more than 18,597 homeless children. The family found themselves sharing a single room at the Raleigh Rescue Mission for several months while Jenn struggled to get them into affordable housing.
Jenn told a local news station that she had no help from her sons’ fathers, who “are where they’ve always been—somewhere else.” She said of her boys, “I’m all they got, and they’re all I got.”
Single-mother families, like Jenn’s, are becoming the face of child homelessness in America today. According to a new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness (NCFH), one in every 30 American children experienced homelessness in 2013, with most homeless families headed by single mothers.
The report lists “the challenges of single parenting” as one of six contributing factors to child homelessness, emphasizing that “Single mothers are often only one catastrophe away from homelessness since they are solely responsible for wage earning, child care and homemaking.” (Just one-third of these mothers receive any child support, which typically averages around $400 a month—not enough to make rent, let alone support a family.) Single-mother families are nearly five times more likely than married-couple families to fall below the poverty line, the report goes on to point out, and poverty is the number-one cause of child homelessness.
To address child homelessness, the NCFH report recommends affordable housing; education, job, and parenting supports; and trauma care services for families. While it acknowledges the connection between single motherhood and child homelessness, it does not address the lack of marriage in low-income communities as part of the problem, nor does it include strengthening marriage as part of the solution.
Single-mother families are becoming the face of child homelessness in America today.
Similarly, a report on child poverty released in November by the Annie E. Casey Foundation also ignores the marriage factor. The report, “Creating Opportunity for Families: A Two-Generation Approach,” briefly mentions that “many low-income families are headed by a single parent with no more than a high school diploma whose median monthly earnings cover just over half the basic costs of raising children.” Although it acknowledges that kids’ success is “strongly tied” to family stability and health, the report completely leaves marriage out of the equation, instead focusing on education, job, and parenting supports as solutions.
The exclusion of marriage as a viable weapon against child poverty and homelessness is disappointing to say the least. While single motherhood puts children at a higher risk of negative life events, including poverty and homelessness, the intact married family offers children (and women) the greatest protection against both.
The connection between single motherhood and child homelessness is one more reason that the decline of married parenthood should alarm us. Nationally, births to unmarried women now account for more than 40 percent of all births. In lower-income communities, unmarried parenthood is even more common, with the majority of poor families headed by single parents.
In their recent report, “For Richer, For Poorer: How Family Structures Economic Success in America,” W. Bradford Wilcox and economist Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute argue that nearly one-third of the nation’s growing economic inequality among families with children can be attributed to the “decreasing number of Americans who form and maintain stable, married families.” As they explain, increases in unwed childbearing, divorce, and single motherhood between 1980 and 2012 have led to fewer children being raised by their married parents (down from 78 percent to 66 percent of children). The decreasing number of married-couple families is a problem, Wilcox and Lerman note, because it exposes more children to a number of negative social and economic outcomes that include “more instability in housing and primary caretakers,” and “fewer economic resources.”
According to Wilcox and Lerman, married-parent families have an “economic advantage over cohabiting and single parent families,” such as more economic support from their families, and higher earnings for married men. “Growing up with both parents (in an intact family) is strongly associated with more education, work, and income among today’s young men and women,” they write. “Young men and women from intact families enjoy an annual ‘intact-family premium’ that amounts to $6,500 and $4,700, respectively, over the incomes of their peers from single-parent families.” They estimate that “the growth in median income of families with children would be 44 percent higher if the United States enjoyed 1980 levels of married parenthood today.”
Ending the cycle of single parenthood is key to improving the economic conditions of families with children.
The report also highlights how family patterns repeat themselves in future generations. For example, growing up in an intact family lowers a woman’s risk of becoming a single mother by 12 percent, and lowers a man’s risk of becoming a noncustodial father by 5 percent. Growing up in a married family, moreover, increases the likelihood that both men and women will marry as adults.
Ending the cycle of single parenthood, which tends to repeat itself in families, is key to improving the economic conditions of families with children. Since single motherhood increases a child’s risk of being poor or homeless, it just makes sense to include the promotion of married parenthood as part of the solution. This does not mean pushing marriage on single mothers as a way out of poverty, but pursuing public policies that make marriage more feasible, and educating young people about the economic and social benefits of reserving parenthood until marriage. As Wilcox has argued, when it comes to the impact of marriage on poverty, the sequence of events matters: “Young adults who put education, work, marriage, and parenthood in the right order face very low odds of poverty.”
Educating young people about this important sequence of life events is one recommendation for improving the economic condition of the American family that Wilcox and Lerman make in their report. They suggest the launch of a private-sector driven “national campaign that encourages young adults to follow the ‘success sequence:’ education, job, marriage, children.”
Wilcox and Lerman also offer a number of policy-based recommendations for strengthening marriage in lower-income communities. But none of these policy recommendations will work alone, without a necessary change in the broken marriage culture, which is what makes the “success sequence” message so critical. Young people who have grown up in single-mother families have not seen healthy marriages modeled at home or sometimes even in their communities. Their understanding of relationships may be distorted by abandonment, divorce, serial cohabitation, family violence, and unwed parenthood, and they are at a significantly higher risk of repeating these things in their own lives. They desperately need to hear why marriage matters to their success as adults, and to their future children. Promoting marriage over cohabitation and single parenting as best for children should be an essential part of our efforts to end child poverty and homelessness.