In a surprising change, the number of young single mothers in the workforce has been steadily climbing since 2015. Claire Cain Miller and Ernie Tedeschi, writing for the New York Times, report that the increase is being led by single mothers without college degrees, according to an analysis by the New York Times of Current Population Survey data. These single mothers face many barriers to employment, such as the challenge of finding affordable childcare and the lack of predictable work schedules. The authors note that many safety net programs have been shredded and work requirements have increased. The single mothers tend to be poorer and less educated than other working mothers, and no one has developed new federal policies to help them, so what factors account for this increase in their participation?
One obvious answer is that with a shredded safety net, they have to work. The authors note other factors probably at play:
- Local state and city policy changes like paid leave, sick leave, and minimum wage increases have made it more feasible for single mothers to work and afford childcare. In fact, areas that raised the minimum wage saw the largest rise in the rate of single mothers who work.
- The rate of participation in the workforce by young single mothers increased four percentage points more in states that expanded Medicaid in 2014 under the Affordable Care Act.
- Five states and the District of Columbia enacted or expanded paid family leave since early 2016.
- Eight states and thirteen cities enacted or expanded paid sick leave. Some companies have also extended paid leave to hourly workers.
- State spending on public pre-K has significantly increased since 2015, and many cities have begun offering public pre-K. Since the District of Columbia instituted public pre-K, the rate of single mothers in the workforce has increased four percentage points more than the increase for married mothers.
- The tight labor market may mean that some employers have made an effort to offer more predictable work schedules.
- The gig economy, such as driving for Uber, also offers opportunities for single mothers to work with a flexible schedule.
No one factor seems to account for the increase of single mothers in the workforce but rather a patchwork of policies. Yet these single moms remain vulnerable to the whims of employers and the winds of economic change. We need federal policies that ensure living wages, paid leave, and subsidized childcare so parents can provide a healthy start for their children.
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