Single moms, stuck in the system

One who gets state help would lose it if she were to make a little more money

ahobbs@theolympian.comJune 4, 2014 

Two years ago, Sam Boyer was homeless, unemployed and pregnant with twins.

The single mother of two toddlers has come a long way. Boyer said the Family Support Center in Olympia connected her with housing and financial aid. Now she works as a certified nurse’s aid, which helps pay the rent for a two-bedroom condo on the Olympia-Tumwater border.

Although they live below the poverty level, state assistance keeps Boyer’s family housed, fed and afloat.

“Life is better than it was,” said Boyer, 34.

However, the money can sometimes be a blessing and a curse. Boyer said if she works more than three days a week, the rent on her Section 8 home will increase with her salary. This setup hinders her long-term goal of saving money for a home of her own, she said.

“It just seems like once you’re stuck in the system, you can’t get out,” Boyer said. “I’d like to be self-sufficient.”

A common struggle for single parents involves child care. With a monthly income of about $1,650, Boyer qualifies for financial assistance through the Working Connections Child Care program.

“I’m glad I have it, or I couldn’t work,” she said of the state program. “I can’t afford to put them in day care on my own.”

Sometimes the assistance doesn’t stretch far enough, she said. If the children get sick, she must take the day off work and stay home. If she’s running late when picking up the kids, the child care provider charges a fee that can put a sizable dent in Boyer’s limited finances, she said.

“One of the biggest things about being a single mom is that there are not enough people around to watch the kids if something happens,” she said. “The price of child care is a huge expense.”

Families are eligible for Working Connections if their annual income is at 200 percent of the federal poverty level or lower. The federal poverty level for a family of three — like Boyer’s family — is $19,790. Families become ineligible if their income exceeds that limit, said Amy Blondin, community relations manager for the state Department of Early Learning.

“There’s the balance between helping families get up and on their feet, and also making sure that we’re not unintentionally discouraging them from getting that wage increase that would bump them out of the program,” Blondin said. “The programs are designed to help get families to self-sufficiency.”

The Legislative Task Force on Child Care Improvements was created in 2013 to address this issue. One possible solution is to revise the co-pay scale (out-of-pocket cost) in order to lessen the impact when child care subsidies are cut off, said Blondin, adding that the task force has yet to reach a consensus on how to do it.

Annie Cubberly, executive director of the Child Care Action Council in Olympia, said access to affordable child care is one tool that can help get low-income families out of poverty. There’s a difference between preschool and child care, and “preschool for three hours a day doesn’t work for everyone,” Cubberly said.

“I’ve known people who haven’t accepted a raise so that they can continue to get Working Connections,” said Cubberly, who at one time was a single mother. “It makes sense to a certain extent.”

The council operates a crisis nursery program that provides free child care on short notice. For example, a single parent could use the service to go on a job interview. Cubberly and the council have also consistently advocated for ways to improve the quality of child care and the standards by which providers engage children in a group learning environment.

“The majority of low-income kids are in child care,” she said. “Let’s make child care awesome.”

According to the latest figures by the U.S. census bureau, nearly 37 percent (about 1,700) of Olympia households headed by a single female with children under 18 are below the poverty level. In Tumwater, that total is 31.3 percent, while in Lacey, 41.1 percent of single female households with children live in poverty.

Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, has written several books and articles about marriage and family. Coontz said adequate child care solves multiple problems for single parents and society at large. Quality preschool and child care saves about $7 in social spending down the road for every $1 invested, said Coontz, who cited examples such as reduced dropout rates and teen pregnancies. Many single parents have had blocked opportunities in other areas of life and could benefit from better access to education and family planning, she said.

“We need affordable, quality preschool and child care so that single parents do not have to put their children in unsafe or unstimulating settings, or even leave them alone, in order to put food on the table,” Coontz said.

Tumwater resident Allison Woody, a single mother of a 5-year-old son, said she earns too much money as an office manager to qualify for the Working Connections program. Although she receives child support payments from her son’s father, the cost of child care can be frustrating, she said. However, Woody said she is fortunate to have a good job and a supportive family nearby.

“I would rather struggle living paycheck to paycheck” than work a second job, she said, “so I can have evenings and weekends with my son.”

Several local organizations do other things to improve the well-being of single parents and low-income families. The YWCA of Olympia’s Other Bank provides toiletries and hygiene items for those who qualify. The bank serves about 120 families each week, said Cherie Reeves Sperr, communications director. The average income of the families is $686 a month, Sperr said, and about 53 percent of households served by Other Bank are headed by a single female.

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869 ahobbs@theolympian.com

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