By Naomi Schalit
Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting
This is part two of a series.
AUGUSTA — Of the tens of thousands of Maine children living in poverty or just above it, most are living with just one parent, usually a mother. In 2014, 69 percent of Maine’s children in poor families and 54 percent of children in low-income families were being raised by a single parent. In middle- and upper-class families, only 19 percent of the children were being raised by a single parent. The poverty level for a four-member family (two parents, two children) in the United States is set at an annual income of $24,300; low-income is defined as $48,600.
Well-educated people get married and have children; those without college degrees are much more likely to have children outside of marriage.
“The proportion of first births that occur outside of marriage is only 12 percent for those who are college graduates; it’s 58 percent for everyone else,” writes Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill, who has written extensively about single-parent families.
For the majority of Maine’s single mothers, the American dream — that hard work will pay off in a better life for you and your children — isn’t happening. Their lives consist of endless emergencies, low-paid jobs and grinding, dead-end poverty that promise to be the inheritance and future for their children.
“Families living under poverty live in perpetual crisis … for single parents, the instability is even greater,” said a report written in late 2015 by consultants for the city of Auburn. “Two out of three fell behind on utility bills. 60 percent experienced a car breakdown with no money to fix it. Almost a third had to move due to inability to meet housing expenses.”
The researchers at Child Trends, a national research nonprofit that provides data to policy makers, synthesized years of demographic data and a raft of academic studies in a December 2015 report that concluded, “Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to …experience instable living arrangements, live in poverty, and have socio-emotional problems.
“They are more likely to have low educational attainment,” the report continues, “engage in sex at a younger age, and have a birth outside of marriage. As young adults, children born outside of marriage are more likely to be idle (neither in school nor employed), have lower occupational status and income, and have more troubled marriages and more divorces than those born to married parents.”
So why do single women have children without the support of a father?
Poor women have the same desires as other women, said Donna Beegle, the author of two books on poverty and families, who holds a doctorate in education and consults with several communities in Maine who are trying to fight poverty.
“Women in poverty, like all humans, love children,” said Beegle, who grew up in a migrant labor family.
“On a personal level, I had six pregnancies living in the crisis of poverty,” she said. “Only two of them survived that war zone. I was going to love them, we would play, we would have fun and figure out a way to get by and maybe they would be smarter than me and make it.
“That was my world view.”
Ellen Farnsworth, whose job is to visit families in Washington County and advise parents on how to raise healthy children, said the young women she sees often lack self-confidence. They then seek confirmation of their worth in relationships with unsuitable men and the unconditional love of a baby.
“I so often see young women, it’s so important for them to be in a relationship that it doesn’t matter with whom, so long as they’re in a relationship. That might last two weeks and then they’re on to another one … they could have a child or two, and the child is calling each one of these men ‘Daddy,’” Farnsworth said.
And once the babies arrive, the rosy glow of romance and anticipation turn into something starkly different.
“I didn’t know how hard it would be,” said Joanne R., the single mother.
“I had nothing to compare it to. I’d never been a single mom before; I thought I’m capable of a lot of things, so why not?
“But it’s been — I don’t even know how to put it in words — it’s been a complete roller coaster. Happy, sad, happy, sad, happy, sad, stressed out, angry. And all I want to do is make her happy.
“I think the one thing that would make her the happiest is to spend time with me, but I don’t have any.” Joanne R.’s voice breaks. “I don’t have any extra time.”
What’s happening with mothers like Joanne R. in Maine is a reflection of a dramatic, decades-long shift in marriage and childbearing across the nation, brought on, experts say, by changing social mores and the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs that didn’t require more than a high school education.
“I get the idea if you don’t have much hope in your life, don’t see a positive trajectory and think you’re going to be poor forever, what’s the point in deferring childbearing. What’s the point in marrying a guy who has very poor economic prospects himself,” said Brookings economist Sawhill.
But what’s emerged from that shift is a chaotic new form of the family. So-called “baby daddies,” often unemployed, live for a while with a woman, get her pregnant, — and then go off and live with another woman and her kids, only to repeat the cycle and move on once more, according to a 2014 report in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science and confirmed by Maine’s Office of the Attorney General.
“Mothers have multiple children with fathers; the fathers have multiple children with mothers; the mother had four children with four different fathers and each one of the fathers also had another child with another mother,” said Debby Willis, describing families that she’s dealt with as chief of the state attorney general’s child support division.
The 41 percent of births in Maine to unmarried women is close to the national figure of 40.2. But the national number reflects much more racial diversity than the number for Maine, which is 95 percent white. According to the CDC, the percentage of births to unmarried Maine women is 15 percent higher than the national percentage of births to unmarried white women, which is 35.7 percent.
According to the U.S. Census, Maine is among the top three states in the nation for the percentage of white families headed by single parents in 2014 — Vermont and West Virginia are the top two at 35 percent, while Maine is barely behind at 34 percent.
Another statistic that reveals the trend toward single-motherhood is the simple fact that, in the past, the vast majority of babies in Maine were born to married parents. In 1990, for example, of the 17,300 infants born, 78 percent were born to married women; 22 percent to unmarried women. Twenty-three years later, percentages were well in the other direction: 41 percent of kids were born to single mothers.
There are several contributing reasons beyond single-parenthood for the number of Maine children who live in poverty:
- The LePage administration’s welfare changes in 2012 limited families to receiving a total of five years of assistance from the federal-state program called TANF. The changes cut at least 1,500 needy families off the program. Those families, according to University of Maine social work professor Sandra Butler, included “an estimated 2,700 children.” More families are cut off each subsequent year when they reach the five-year limit.
- The state’s supply of well-paying jobs that sustained families has dwindled with the shuttering of shoe, lumber and paper mills.
- The 2007-09 recession hit job and wage growth in Maine hard, and “average weekly earnings for Mainers today (are) lower, in real terms, than they were in 2007,” according to the Maine Center for Economic Policy.
But much of the state’s poverty, especially child poverty, results from the growth in single parenthood, according to those who have studied the problem.
“If you look at the data, it takes you five minutes to realize that single moms are a significant portion of what drives disadvantage in communities in the state of Maine,” says Tony Cipollone, head of one of the state’s largest philanthropies, the John T. Gorman Foundation.
“If you look proportionately to the degree that that population affects the overall poverty rate in Maine, it’s substantial.”
The shift away from having children while married, echoes Brookings Institution researcher Ron Haskins, “has increased the nation’s poverty rate, increased income inequality.
“We have,” he said, “dug a very deep hole.”
Naomi Schalit is a senior reporter at the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta. Email: [email protected]. Web: www.pinetreewatchdog.org. David Leaming contributed reporting to this story. Reporting for this story was supported, in part, by grants from the Samuel L. Cohen, Hudson and Maine Health Access foundations. Demographic analysis was provided by Andrew Schaefer, Vulnerable Families Research Scientist, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire.
Next: Part 3 – An ‘endless struggle’ for a single mom