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On: May 10, 2024

On Mother’s Day, we honor those women who have the most important – and for many, the most joyous – job in the world. But for too many of those mothers, the second Sunday in May is just another day filled with the challenges and burdens of a life lived in poverty.

According to 2022 U.S. Census Data, women in general are more likely than men to fall below the official poverty line: 12.4% of all women compared to 10.5% of men, a difference of  almost four million souls. Roughly half of all women in poverty are living in “deep” or “extreme” poverty, defined as having incomes less than half the official poverty level. 

The situation is even grimmer for women who are the mothers of young children — and most especially so for single mothers. In 2022, just under one-quarter (24.7%) of all single mothers were living below the poverty line, compared to 16.6% of single women without children and just 5.6% of married women with children. 

And of course, all those moms living in poverty means there are far too many children below the poverty line, as well. Back in 2018, according to census data, 11.9 million children were living in poverty – accounting for almost a third (31.1%) of all those living below the poverty line.

Why are women, and especially moms, so much more likely to live in poverty? Sociologists have identified many reasons, including the persistent wage gap between women and men and the lack of adequate work-family policies, such as childcare and paid family leave, which makes it harder for poor mothers to find work outside of the home.

And work is, without question, the greatest factor in determining whether women and moms can escape poverty. A 2012 study found that for single mothers who have a full-time, year-round job, the poverty rate is cut by about two-thirds. And job quality also makes a crucial difference: single mothers are disproportionally likely to hold low-wage jobs without sick pay or similar benefits, which forces them to lose hours when a child falls ill. But having a full-time, quality job enables mothers to balance work and family responsibilities more effectively.

Signs of Progress

Here in Massachusetts, Family Health Project’s direct giving pilot programs offer small but significant signs of progress in reducing poverty among mothers and children. FHP’s two programs – one in Lynn, the other in Roxbury – together serve a total of 30 mothers and babies, providing each with a $400 monthly payment for three years. More than three-quarters of the recipients – 23 out of 30 – are single mothers.

The theory behind the programs is straightforward. When mothers have extra cash, they will spend it in ways that help their families: on childcare, food, utility bills, transportation, and adult education. And that appears to be exactly what’s happening.

“There isn’t one person on the caseload who hasn’t had significant growth,” says case worker Katie O’Leary. In the Lynn program, where all participants are Hispanic, five are currently enrolled in English as a Second Language courses, and two more will receive their high-school equivalency diplomas. “All had major growth in their ability to communicate in English,” she adds.

In the Roxbury program, where the recipients are more ethnically diverse, the extra cash has occasionally provided a direct pathway to a job. “In some cases, someone in the household has secured employment – and that’s a matter of being able to afford the bus pass,” O’Leary says.

The monthly payment helps relieve extreme financial stress and gives recipients the extra confidence they need to navigate the bureaucracy and advocate for themselves to get needed services. Perhaps most important, by helping to provide desperately needed material resources, families are given breathing room to engage in more meaningful parenting.

“It’s the trust that we’ve been able to build, that’s enabled us to bridge the gap to where they can get services,” O’Leary says. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and this is my favorite program of all – it’s filling a need that government does not fill.”

This Mother’s Day we invite you to honor the mothers in your life by making a gift to Family Health Project. Your gift will go directly to supporting Family Health Project mothers, helping to ensure equity and healthy beginnings for their families.

Thank you for your partnership in supporting FHP families. Happy Mother’s Day!