Moms’ Equal Pay Day Spotlight: Single Mothers, Poverty, and the Wage Gap

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Fair Pay

When my family emigrated from the Philippines in 2003, my mother lost everything. Our home – modest, yet comfy – was abandoned in favor of a singular bedroom at my grandma’s house on the Southside of Milwaukee. Perpetually bothered by our lack of privacy and constant proximity, my sister and I spent our evenings sulking, while my mother toiled away, working the night shift at the local casino. When she’d come home past midnight, tired and smelling like smoke after an exhausting shift, it didn’t take much for her stress to translate into hostility. She’d complain, yell and instigate fights with us. Frustrated by the way she spoke, I’d be too overwhelmed with anger to notice how often my mother cried. When her burdens became too heavy, she’d find herself weeping – quietly and quickly, with no one to comfort her besides two kids and a support system 8,000 miles away.

If my mother’s life has taught me anything, it’s this: single mothers work hard, yet sometimes hard work is simply not enough. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes, which portray single mothers as “selfish,” “irresponsible” and “lazy,” my mother did everything “right” in the eyes of society. For twenty years, she labored tirelessly and ceaselessly – abandoning her dreams and sacrificing her mental and physical health – in an attempt to single-handedly support our family. Despite all her efforts, she has never earned more than $14 an hour – and the lasting impacts of poverty have strained our relationship in ways that persist, endlessly lingering. As I reflect on her experiences, I’ve grown to believe that our fates are not solely determined by our efforts. Single mothers and their families have been trapped in inescapable cycles of poverty by factors outside of their control, with little room for recourse in the absence of widespread policy changes.

What the Wage Gap Costs Single Moms

According to the Current Population Survey, single-mother households are more likely to be poor than single-father households and married-parent households. In 2021, 60 percent of mother-only families were economically insecure, while nearly a third lived below the federal poverty line.

All too often, conservative politicians attribute these outcomes to individual shortcomings. Ronald Reagan, for instance, repeatedly invoked the term “welfare queen” to stereotype single Black mothers as promiscuous, lazy and reliant on public assistance. Today, blaming single mothers for their suffering has become an easy way for policymakers to absolve their responsibility to help and advance support for declining patriarchal family structures, like the male-headed nuclear family. Rarely, in their explanations of poverty, do we ever hear them acknowledge the myriad of structural, cultural and organizational barriers single mothers face to employment and career advancement.

For example, let’s consider the wage gap.

Like single-father households, families headed by single mothers are supported by only one parent. However, single mothers also face a wage gap, on top of their breadwinning responsibilities. Overall, mothers who worked full-time, year-round were paid only 74 cents for every dollar paid to fathers in 2021. Over the course of a year, this amounted to $18,000 in lost earnings – enough to afford nine months of rent, five months of groceries and three months of child care!

Unsurprisingly, the wage gap is even wider for mothers of color. Latina mothers were paid 51 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic fathers, Native American mothers were paid 49 cents and Black mothers were paid 53 cents. In a single year, the wage gap robbed them of a whopping $37,000, $38,000 and $35,000, respectively. It is no consolation that a disproportionate number of Black and Hispanic children live in single-mother households.

How to Solve the Wage Gap

Ultimately, the wage gap is just one of the many factors that explain single mothers’ exceptionally high levels of poverty. These gaps do not reflect differences in ability, work ethic or autonomous decision making – they are the product of gender discrimination, workplace harassment and policies that have shortchanged working mothers for decades. Most notably, unreasonably high costs of child care, along with employers’ lack of supportive caregiving policies, frequently push mothers out of the workforce. This drives down their wages by temporarily halting employment and stunting potential advancement opportunities.

When pay inequity is so deeply entrenched in our society, workplaces and current policy landscape, we cannot expect mothers to defy the odds and single-handedly fight their way to financial stability. Not even “supermoms,” like my own mother, could do so. To support our nation’s backbone, policymakers need to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, Healthy Families Act, FAMILY Act and other legislation to close the wage gap. Our moms may be strong, hardworking and seemingly capable of handing anything, but they can’t dismantle decades of inequity on their own.