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Faculty Research

Single Mothers & Self-Reliance


The word poverty often brings to mind images of hungry children, families living in shantytowns, or people begging on the sides of roads. Poverty, however, is not just a problem of the developing world. The World Bank describes, “Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time.”1

Millions of families in the United States experience hunger, live in substandard housing, lack access to affordable health care, send their children to underperforming schools, and struggle to find stable employment, particularly employment that will pay a living wage.

In the United States 10 percent of all families—7.6 million families—live in poverty.2 Even more families live above the official poverty line but still struggle to cover basic necessities. For instance, 75 percent of the 45.8 million Americans with no health insurance live above the poverty line. Employed workers and their children constitute the majority of those without insurance.3


One type of family is more likely to be affected by poverty than any other: single-mother families. Today a single mother heads one out of every eight families in the United States. While only 10 percent of all families in the United States live in poverty, nearly 40 percent of single-mother families live in poverty. Single-mother families are five times more likely to live in poverty than two-parent families.4

Why do single-mothers families struggle so much more than other families? The vast majority of single moms work; however, single mothers often do not have the education or work experience needed to command a high salary.5 The average income for a single-mother family is only $26,000 a year, lower than the average income for a single-father family or a two-parent family.6 Single moms also often find it difficult to work long hours, since they must also care for their children.

In a recent focus group, single moms agreed that their two most pressing challenges are earning enough money to support their families and having enough time to spend with their children.

Other challenges include:

  • They lack the time, funds, and support to obtain the additional education necessary to secure a better job.
  • They confront the ever-present dilemma of finding quality, affordable child care.
  • They lack the formal safety net to guard against an economic shock, leaving them one accident or illness away from losing everything.

One single mother works for a doctor during the day and then spends an extra hour after closing to clean the office—those sixty minutes help her financially but take a toll. She explains, “That hour is precious to me. It’s either that extra time for me to sleep so I can feel like I’m a human, or it’s a moment with my kids.”

These challenges leave many single moms feeling trapped. As one expressed, “I’m struggling here to stay above water, and I know what I need to do, but I can’t do it because I don’t have the resources.”

Preliminary results from a statewide survey of Utah’s single mothers indicate that 75 percent of single mothers in Utah could maintain their families’ current standard of living for less than a month if they had an interruption in their income. Thirty-five percent of Utah single mothers could not even maintain their families for one week if they lost their income.

The hardships faced by single mothers can lead to increased emotional stress. Many feel guilty or anxious because of the limited time they spend with their children. These challenges can also impact their children. The children of single parents are statistically less likely to finish high school and are more likely to have children as teenagers. These negative outcomes are largely due to the smaller income single moms are likely to have.7


Despite the overwhelming challenges, most single mothers work tirelessly to provide and care for their children. With some additional support most single moms could find their way out of poverty to self-sufficiency and an improved quality of life.

A number of government programs and nonprofit organizations seek to provide that additional help in communities across the country. In Utah, organizations such as People Helping People and the Single Mom Foundation focus on helping single mothers build self-sufficiency by helping them obtain additional education and find better employment.

In 2005 the Marriott School’s Economic Self-Reliance Center created the Single Mom Initiative in partnership with the Single Mom Foundation. The initiative researches successful methods for helping single-mother families become self-reliant and helps community organizations better understand and implement those methods. Students, faculty, and community organizations participate in the research, ensuring that it is both rigorous and relevant.

Many single-mother assistance programs are based on anecdotal evidence of what single mothers need to achieve self-reliance. The Single Mom Initiative is providing research—conducted through focus groups, surveys, and other methods—to community organizations, which will improve the assistance available to single moms.

The initiative’s initial focus is on single-mother families in Utah. The initiative recently researched the impact of Utah’s Individual Development Account Network on single mothers. Individual development accounts (IDAs) are matched savings accounts intended to help low-income individuals save money and build assets. The research found that single mothers are among the IDA participants who benefit the most from the program—not only from the matching money but also from improved money management skills and new-found confidence. As a result of the research, program coordinators are improving IDA benefits available to Utah single moms.


Poverty in the United States may look different than poverty in the developing world, but the difficulties are no less real. Single-mother families are particularly vulnerable to the hardships and deprivations of poverty. Many single moms live day to day as they struggle to find the time, money, and other resources needed to provide for their families. The efforts of community organizations as well as BYU’s Single Mom Initiative are critical if single-mother families are to receive the support needed to lift themselves and their children out of poverty.


Three years into her marriage, Anne discovered her husband was hiding a serious drinking problem. Despite efforts to address his substance abuse, the problem escalated over the next five years, and her husband’s behavior became increasingly unstable. They eventually divorced, leaving Anne to raise three young children.

Anne faced an uncertain future when she became a single mother. She had been out of the workforce for more than five years. Her only professional experience consisted of work in retail. She was on public assistance and didn’t think her skills would transfer to a job that would allow her to support her family.

While applying for food stamps, Anne saw a flyer about a conference being held for single mothers. At the conference, Anne attended a workshop presented by a nonprofit organization, People Helping People (PHP), which helps single mothers find long-term, stable employment. Anne started the PHP program the very next week.

PHP pairs single mothers with women who have been successful in the workplace. This mentoring relationship provides single mothers with encouragement as well as role models. The group also provides weekend training workshops and coaching sessions. The women learn about topics such as financial assessment, résumé preparation, and job interviewing.

After joining People Helping People’s Successful Employment Program, Anne took a temp job at an asset management firm. She performed so well that the company offered her a permanent full-time position. Armed with the skills and knowledge gained in her PHP training, Anne negotiated a higher starting wage than she was originally offered.

Nearly two years later, Anne has received two raises and expects an additional 20 percent bonus by the end of the year. She has almost tripled her income since working as a temp and no longer relies on public assistance. “I put in a lot of effort, but the rewards have been huge—I was able to take control of my life,” Anne says.


Post-secondary education can have a dramatic impact on the life of a single mother. A woman with a high school diploma or GED who earns an associate degree increases her yearly salary by an average of 33 percent. A bachelor’s degree increases her yearly salary by an average of 77 percent.8

Started in 1996, the Single Mom Foundation (SMF) has helped hundreds of women improve their quality of life through education and mentoring programs. Today SMF is creating a network of educational partners who will work together to help single moms return to school and achieve their educational goals.

For single mothers and their children, getting an appropriate education means not only higher wages but also greater job security, better health insurance, stable housing, and intangible benefits such as increased self-esteem and career satisfaction.


Article written by Julie Humberstone

Julie Humberstone is director of the Single Mom Initiative at BYU’s Economic Self-Reliance Center. She earned her MPA from the Marriott School. For additional information, contact her at


  1. The World Bank. (n.d.). Understanding Poverty. Retrieved 21 May 2007 from
  2. U.S. Census Bureau. (2005). Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months of Families. Retrieved 10 May 2007 from
  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (22 September 2005). Overview of the Uninsured in the United States: An Analysis of the 2005 Current Population Survey. Retrieved 22 May 2007 from
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. (2005). Poverty Status in the Past 12 Months of Families. Retrieved 10 May 2007, from
  5. Ellwood, D. T., and Jencks, C. (2004). The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States since 1960. KSG Faculty Research Working Papers Series, Harvard University. Retrieved 10 May 2007 from
  6. U.S. Census Bureau. (29 August 2006). HINC-04: Presence of Children Under 18 Years Old—Households, by Total Money Income in 2005, Type of Household, Race, and Hispanic Origin of the Household. Retrieved 10 May 2007 from
  7. McLanahan, S., and Sandefur, G. (1994). Growing up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
  8. U.S. Census Bureau. Table 217. Mean Earnings by Highest Degree Earned: 2004. Retrieved 10 May 2007 from