Parenting in poverty: Part II of Sarah's story

October 29, 2012

See part one of Sarah’s story, here.

(Note: Sarah’s name and the name of her children have been changed to protect their privacy.)

Every weekday afternoon, Sarah picks up her 4-year-old son Max from daycare and has 15 minutes to make it home before her daughter Allie gets back from school. On they day I visited, Sarah arrived just in time to meet the bus.

“When you are a single parent you have to hurry. You don’t have a father to wait while you go get the other child,” said Sarah.

Her daughter ran up to meet her. 7-year-old Allie has big eyes and wild blond hair. Max is a whole head shorter than his sister and looks just like his mom.  The family lives in a small town in Indiana called Warsaw. Work in small towns can be hard to come by, and it's often in sectors that don’t typically pay well, like the service industry. Sarah, for example, has a minimum wage job at a childcare center. She and her family live below the poverty line.

Pew recently identified single motherhood as a key indicator in economic mobility. Children born to single moms, like Sarah, are a staggering four times as likely to be in poverty than children in two-parent households.  And single motherhood is a growing trend: nearly half of births are to unmarried mothers, more than ever before.  

There is no doubt that Sarah and her family have an unstable life. But the question of why that is, and how it should be fixed is a sharply divided debate.

Slipping from the middle class

Sarah wasn’t always poor. She grew up in a middle-class family and went to college. In her 20's, she had a job and owned a house. But when her boyfriend left her, she couldn’t manage the house payments alone. She started dating a new man, who said he knew how they could save her house.

“He told me to take $100 and buy 10 boxes of Sudafed. He said 'You will make $1,000 in one night. I thought, hmmm… let’s do that,” she explained.

Sarah knew dealing in meth was dangerous. But she was pregnant with Allie and terrified of losing her home. So she took his suggestion. She was just $1,800 short of catching up on her house payments when she got arrested. She was never actually charged. But after all that, she did lose the house.

By that time, her daughter Allie had been born. For the next few years, they bounced around living situations. They stayed 45 days, the maximum limit, at a shelter. Sarah and Allie stayed with men who were abusive toward Sarah, just to keep a roof over their heads. Sometimes Sarah scraped together enough money to pay rent, but they could never hold onto a place for long. When they didn’t have any more options, they lived in their car.

Eventually Sarah was able to secure government housing through HUD. Allie's father, Sarah's boyfriend at the time, stayed with them every once in a while. The housing officials suspected he lived there, which Sarah denied. They asked her to move out.

The only place she could afford was the cheap apartment where Sarah now lives with Allie and Max.

“I only live here because I have to,” she said, “I’d never choose this place.”

But she has made the best of it, decorating with cheery Halloween decorations and hanging family pictures on the wall.  When I visited, Allie and Max showed me their room. Allie said she doesn’t love sharing a room with her brother, but it does have more space than when they lived in a hotel.

Allie climbed up to the top bunk and wrapped her comforter protectively around her, so just her head is poked out. Though Sarah has taken great care in making this a home, with the Halloween decorations and a bunk bed for the kids, Allie told me that they are moving in a month.

“Because mommy says it’s a bad neighborhood. ‘Cause there was something bad over there. It’s something mommy talks about that I am not allowed to talk about. It’s a Meth lab. Ain’t it creepy? Right above our heads. They are right there doing it,” Allie said.

Allie’s mom said, it’s true, the next-door neighbors were cooking meth. That terrifies her. Even when she was involved in drugs herself, those drugs were never near her kids. Those neighbors are gone now, but there was recently a drug bust at the hotel next door. And she worries about safety every day.

“You have to have a place to put your children at night. Put them to bed. Tuck them in and know they are going to be safe when you come back to get them in the morning.  If you’re not...you are living like I had lived, going from place to place to place having just a blanket or a pillow on the floor or couch,” Sarah said, her eyes welling up with tears.

She said if there was one thing that could help their family, it would be stable housing.

“My kids need a comfortable place, a happy place, a place that my children will know is theirs,” she added.

Sarah said that Allie still uses an address belonging to a home they lived in a year ago. 

“Because this isn’t her home. This is just where we are staying till we get to the next step," Sarah said. 

The impact of poverty on children

The instability impacts Allie in a very noticeable way. Sarah once caught her hiding a knife under her bed. Allie has constant trouble behaving in school and feels isolated from the other kids.

“She is the only child in her school who failed. The only kid.  And it’s not because I wasn’t here helping her with homework,” Sarah said.

Sarah is an active and engaged mom. She’s tried to help Allie by taking her to therapy and finding her a mentor.

“If [Allie] was a computer and she had a bug, you’d take it to a technician and they’d figure it out. Well, Allie’s my little computer,” said Sarah.

Katherine Magnuson is a professor at the University of Wisconsin in the School of Social Work. She researches poverty and childhood development. She said instability and unpredictably causes both mental and physical stress in children.

“It turns out that it’s actually physical process. Neuroscientist have actually found that under prolonged periods of stress that brain development is affected,” said Magnuson.

Looking for solutions

The research about childhood stress and poverty overwhelmingly illustrates the importance of the first few years of life.  As a result, there has been an increasing focus on early childhood education as a way of closing the achievement gap between poor and rich children. But Magnuson said we may be expecting schools to do too much by themselves.

“When people think about children in poverty they think, what can I do for the child? And that’s a useful way to think about it. But I think understanding how important parents are takes it back a step further. [We need to think about the] types of things that will help parents not have to move from car to shelter,” said Magnuson.

Studies show that when programs give families additional income, they can improve children’s performance in school and on tests. Other studies, which track families who receive income boosts, suggest that the benefits extend far into adulthood: children enjoy larger incomes as adults.

Magnuson said these programs found people underwent meaningful results in children’s school achievement with just a $2,500 to $3,000 increase per year.

“This is something that can be changed, if we had the political will.  We know how to give families money. We give them money all the time in our tax code in various ways,” said Magnuson.

On the other side, there are politicians who think the best way to fix this problem isn’t necessarily through governmental income support. They want to shape family structures.

The Congressional Act responsible for TANF, the current welfare system, even sets out the goal to increase marriage rates. States were rewarded with extra cash for decreasing out-of -wedlock births and some cities started marriage classes.

But Sarah thinks marriage might not make that much of a difference to her family. The men she’s been with never made enough to bring them out of poverty. Small towns, like where Sarah lives, have lost the mining, farming, and factory work that kept many men employed.

“I'd be worse off if I had married,” she said.

In fact, she ended up supporting many of the men she dated. She said she would hand over money until her bank accounts were drained.

She said she always, ”wanted someone who would meet her 50/50 and every once and awhile 40/60. Because they want to pull a little more weight than you do.”

If she could find that then she said maybe marriage would help, but for now, she’s better off single.

Sarah’s American Dream

Sarah is an incredibly dedicated mother. The night I visit she spent two hours volunteering at Allie’s Girl Scout troop. After she got home, Sarah walked straight into the kitchen, not even stopping to take off her jacket. She wanted to get the children to bed as soon as possible, because she believes routine is important.

She made up sandwiches and soup for the kids to eat before bed.

“I always keep a stockpile of food,” Sarah admits while pointing to jam-packed cabinets.

That’s led to at least one neighbor to look to Sarah for help during tough times. When a neighbor got short on food one week, Sarah gave her peanut butter and other necessities to get her through.

Sarah said the support runs both ways. Once she ran out of gas on her way to taking the kids to a party. The neighbor saw her crying so she filled up Sarah’s tank and made sure the kids got to the slumber party.  Even though there are big financial problems in their community, the neighbors support one another. So that single mothers like Sarah don't feel alone.

As she made her meal Sarah shared her idea of the American Dream.

“This kind of takes me back to being a child,” she said. “My American Dream was to find somebody who didn’t need me but wanted me. Someone who helped raise my children and who would eventually buy a house. I want to have something so when I pass away, I can pass it along to my kids. My goal in life is to someday have something that is worth leaving behind that my children are proud of.”

Sarah said she knows she’s not doing as well as her parent did. But at least, she hopes, she will find a way to give her children a good childhood-- stable and safe, despite all her challenges. So that someday, they might have more than she does.