Living on the Edge of Disaster:
Being a Poor Working Mother in America
by Jay Shaft
October 9, 2003
To be a borderline poverty level working mother is becoming a reality for more and more single, hard working mothers. The edge of financial disaster is becoming familiar territory for millions of women and the families they struggle to support. A desperate scramble for survival is the way a growing sector of the America that is the real backbone of our workforce has to deal with.
These are the stories of five single mothers and the families they are forced to raise all on their own. This is their voices and feelings on the America that has left them behind and seemingly forgotten them. They have all felt the pinch of our economic hard times as a crushing burden they were unfamiliar with until the last two-three years.
Never before has this level of borderline and actual abject poverty existed in America. The disparity between the working class and the ultra rich is becoming more apparent week by week. More companies layoff workers and still manage to give their corporate executives enormous profits and dividends as the low level virtual peasants are discarded by the millions.
Let me take you into the daily lives, the minute-by-minute struggle, and try to get you to live in their footsteps as they walk the path of worry, fear, desperation, and insecurity. Take just a few minutes of your time to read this and maybe you will know what it is like to live as a single mother on the edge of disaster.
Karen is a 27 year-old mother of two who just last year in November was fired from a computer consulting firm where she worked as a mid-level manager. With a degree in communications management she made a very respectable salary. It enabled her to keep her family in comfort and enough luxury to feel a part of the American dream.
Now she works two jobs abs has gone hungry many times to make sure that her children have proper nutrition. Sometimes she has even watched as her children missed some meals and went to sleep with empty stomachs and restless dreams of abundant food and a secure home.
“I went from a three bedroom custom built home to a three room studio that I can barely pay for. I have had to juggle my rent, electric bill, car payments, food expenses, and buying decent clothes for my kids. I have had to make the minimum payments on my light bill and had three shutoff notices in a week. I would scrape up $50 or a $25 check from Daystar just to keep my balance below $200.”
“I have not been able to actually pay off my whole bill since January. I know at least fifty other women in the same situation because we all have seen each other going around to all the places like Urban League, Daystar, Salvation Army, We Help, or anyone else that can give us the little checks to keep the lights on. I never thought that something as simple as paying a $200 bill would be beyond my reach.”
“I have to pay my rent in chunks every week or so and haven’t been able to make a full monthly payment in over six months. Thank god my landlord has kids and is in the same position I am at times. Only another working mother can fully realize what my life has become. I probably will have to file for bankruptcy as a last resort this month.”
Daria is a 36 year-old mother of one who has lost five jobs in the last ten months. She moved from up north to Florida on word of mouth about all the jobs available. Little did she know before moving that the jobs she heard about were vanishing onto thin air. The factory jobs and manufacturing jobs that were so prevalent just two years ago have been eliminated or moved to other cities or sectors.
All that seems to be available are low income service industry jobs or temporary fill in jobs. What little jobs that become available are sought by hundreds of unemployed workers desperate for any position no matter how menial.
She has struggled to be hired only to be eliminated due to economic setbacks within weeks of getting into the job and setting herself up for some sort of job security. After getting the prospect of financial security and the hope of catching up with her bills, she sees the job disappear and has to start her employment search all over again.
“It’s an exercise in tenacity at best” she sighs. “Thank you George Bush, we’re really seeing our bright future and prosperity!” As she puts on a dim and vague smile she describes her worries and fears. You can see her desperation and fear for tomorrow etched in the worried lines of her face.
She has rarely found reason to smile in the last year and the laughs are few and far between. The ability to relax and have a truly enjoyable time has been yanked out from under her and her good times have dried up.
“I have never had to live like this in my life. This never seemed possible to me before I moved down here. I had to live in a motel for two months and in various shelters before I got a permanent apartment.” She now lives in a two-room studio that is barely big enough for her and her daughter.
“This is no way for my kid to live. No kid should have to go through this. I mean I feel so bad sometimes that I can’t give her more security and the things she really needs. I tried to file bankruptcy after being forced to live on my credit cards rather than be homeless and have my kid out on the street. I am so broke I can’t even afford to pay the lawyer the filing fee for the bankruptcy so the bills keep coming in.
“My neighbors watch out for me and it kind of makes me slightly embarrassed, like I can’t take care of my kid. I never had it where my neighbors have to help me, but I’m not going to turn it down. Everybody has to take help sometimes and it helps me get by with a little extra food to feed my kid.”
Melissa is a 21 year-old mother of one who has been homeless or in emergency shelters numerous times in the past two years. At first her husband struggled side by side with her to provide for their child. After being on unemployment for almost a year and bouncing from job to job, her husband finally just left one day.
Because he left out of necessity she now qualifies for state child care benefits and barely enough food stamps to feed her and her daughter. She has not seen her husband for months and knows if he comes back she will lose her benefits and fall back into the pit of poverty and hopelessness.
“I cannot see my husband anymore and it hurts so bad he had to go away. He is working a great job and saving quite a bit of money. I am even scared to let him mail me a few hundred dollars a month. If it wasn’t for that coming in I would be back on the streets with my three year old.”
“I have not been able to really explain to her where her daddy is. She can’t really grasp why we have had to live in overcrowded shelters for weeks at a time. She keeps getting settled in somewhere and then we have to move on to another temporary housing shelter.”
“I have kept a single room apartment for three months now, but I am $400 behind in my rent. I manage to pay $80-$100 a week and that just keeps me in the place. I had to live at my friend’s house for a week after the landlord locked me out until I could come up with $200.”
Mary is a mother of four who has never been married and had no problem keeping a well paying secretarial/ data entry job until about a year ago. She fits the pattern of single women losing good jobs and being forced over the brink of poverty.
She has been among the 60% recorded increase in single mothers between the ages of 19-32 becoming newly homeless. This figure is growing everyday as more single mothers are forced onto the street with their children.
She has managed to keep a room in a Christian based woman’s halfway house so she can save up enough rent for an apartment or small house. The halfway house has extended the rule on the length of stay for the 20 women and their 47 children from 3-6 months to a full year upon proven necessity.
“I have four kids between five and twelve. It is almost impossible to clothe them, feed them, and buy the small things they need to be reasonably happy and content.” She sits in a wooden chair and hugs herself as she recounts the woes that have overridden her simple life, and take away any sense of a future with even a small measure of security.
The tears flow freely down her face as the hurt and anger boil out of her. “Just to have someone listen to me and try to let my voice be heard is overwhelming. I just feel myself sinking deeper into hopelessness and the worst depression I’ve ever felt. No one wants to listen to me or give me an outlet for my simple worries and let me cry it out.”
“My twelve year old daughter knows how close we are to being separated from each other. I have almost had my kids taken from me three times. I love my kids with all my heart and have always been able to provide for them. I want my kids to be able to go to college if they want to get a better life for their kids, if they have them.”
I have to move out of this shelter next month. I will have just enough for a decent apartment or small house for a few months. I will have a small window where my rent is paid and I can try to get everything back on track. All I hope for is to keep my place and put my kids back in a good school and give them some stability. If I can make it through the first three to six months it will all get better.”
“That is my only wish right now. It’s that simple.”
Amy is a 25 year-old mother of three. Her story is slightly different, but also all too familiar with the daily struggle increasing with each setback she encounters. She has just filed for filed for bankruptcy and lost her small, prosperous business.
Her house is in mortgage repossession and she is fighting the bank over a $2000 missed payment. She says she has paid almost half of the mortgage and never been late on a payment until a few months ago. Now she has less then a month to come up with the late payment. She must also come up with the next quarterly payment a few weeks after that.
The only comments she had was a bitter tirade against George W. Bush and his “Leave No Child Behind” promise, and all the promises of economic revival and prosperity for the working class.
“I actually voted for that lying asshole and gave that whole scamming party my confidence. I believed the promises and new riches they dangled in front of us like an empty pipe dream. I damn sure will not ever vote for or support a Republican again!”
“George Bush ought to try living my life for a week. He should come down from his high horse and bust his ass like most of the people I know. Brighter future my ass. What a sick joke on all the hardworking Americans.”
“I had my own business that I built up since I was nineteen. I had a real dream that became my entire life. I was living the promise of the American small business owner. Two years ago I had a huge profit margin and was about to open another small craft and deco boutique. Now I don’t have a pot to piss in and I had to sell my business to a rich guy who is just interested in turning a profit. He doesn’t care about the personal touch that I put into it for years to get my customer’s loyalty.”
“All I have to say to theses rich guys that took over our country is that the little people are getting raped and chewed up and spit out. They have no interest or concern for all the drowning real life people that still believe the lies about an economic recovery.”
I could include many more personal stories of single mothers in crisis but the stories are all strikingly similar. All the interviews I did for this article portray a tale of the skyrocketing poverty rate.
Here are some harsh facts about the children that have become the true victims of this great depression that is engulfing our country. Their mothers are slipping below the surface of poverty but they are the ones who suffer without understanding why or being able to fully comprehend the nature of the situation.
18% of American children, almost 15 million, live in poverty, meaning their parents' income is at or below the federal poverty level. 8% of America’s children, 6 million, live in extreme poverty. 39% of American children, 28 million, live in low-income families. That means that over half of all children in America are facing this growing crisis of starvation, insecure housing, and an uncertain future. (US Census Bureau figures)
3-5 people in food lines and having to use soup kitchens or supplemental food resources are children. 18 million children are estimated to have to miss at least one meal a day. Without the basic services provided by Americas Second Harvest and other food distribution groups, many children would not eat at all.
Now that you have heard some of the voices of the affected single mothers you might be able to feel their desperation and agony. Through their words and the stark facts that are all too real for many, I have tried to take you into the problem. I have tried to let you experience it first hand so that you may have greater understanding.
If you are in similar circumstances you are not alone. If you are one of the Americans still living comfortably with little or no worries, just remember how easy it is to fall into the same trap many are in.
Most Americans are now within a few paychecks of losing their homes and everything that goes with their normal lives. Something as simple as losing a job for even a few weeks is enough to start the long slide into poverty and starvation that is facing millions of Americans.
Maybe together we can change the current trend of disenfranchising even more Americans. It is time for us to take back the control of our destiny and future. If our current leaders choose to ignore our plight they should be replaced with leaders that will ensure the future of America’s children.
The bottom line is that a huge majority of the children are now affected by the crisis facing single mothers in poverty or at the borderline. If we choose to ignore their fate then we truly have failed as a nation.
We are not following the “Leave No Child Behind” promise. We are making sure we leave all of them behind. Leaving them behind to go hungry and live on and off the streets until the state steps in and places them in just as shaky and unstable situation of foster care.
The promise George Bush repeated for months on end is now echoing empty and broken. It leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the needy Americans who are raising our very future. They here all the promises while the children go to bed hungry and not knowing where the next meal will come from.
If this is what America has become then we need a true change. If this is all that we can expect of this once great nation then the dream of all hopeful Americans is now dead.
For some further reading I wrote an article dealing with the new rise in homelessness and poverty: