Prosperity Watch Issue 34, No. 3: Share of single mothers who work but are low-income is on the rise

In another sign of an economy that is leaving too many working families behind, the share of low-income working families headed by single women is on the rise across the nation. There are now 4.1 million low-income families headed by working mothers in the United States, according to a new report by the Working Poor Families Project, increasing to 58 percent of all working families headed by women in 2012, up from 54 percent in 2007.

The report defines “low-income” for a family of three—one mom and two children—as $36,966, twice the official federal poverty line.

But conditions for single mothers are not experienced evenly across all families—they vary widely by racial background. More than two-thirds (65 percent) of all African American low-income, working families are headed by single working mothers. As illustrated in the chart below, the numbers are substantially lower for American Indians (47 percent), whites (36 percent), Hispanic and Latinos (31 percent), and Asians (20 percent). Working hard simply isn’t enough for these single mothers to make ends meet.

At the state level, North Carolina ranks 19th in the nation for the share of low-income working families that are headed by single mothers. Of the 380,113 low-income working families in the state, 40 percent—or roughly 151,000—were headed by single working mothers.1

Working mothers and their families are living paycheck to paycheck due to many factors, ranging from a lack of skills training or credentials to few opportunities in higher-paying, higher-demand occupations to a persistent gender gap in earnings. Women earn only 82 cents on the dollar compared to men in North Carolina even though the Equal Pay Act was signed back in 1963. Women also hold a disproportionate share of low-wage jobs, with the result being that too many women workers do not have jobs that offer benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave or, in some occupations, even wage protections.  

Many female-headed, low-income families in North Carolina are increasingly finding it hard to secure a job that pays family-sustaining wages because they don’t have access to the required postsecondary education. Four in 10 of the women heading low-income working families in North Carolina have no postsecondary education, according to the report. Improving access to and success within postsecondary education by providing need-based financial aid to part-time students along with affordable child care is among the most meaningful reform that can help low-income families.


1 Authors of the report did not make data by race available at the state-level.

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