Hardships and Struggles of Single Mothers in the USA and My Recommendations on the Matter

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Table of Contents

  • Background Information
  • Demographics
  • Population Representation
    Age and Circumstance
    Family Types
    Financial Stress
    Housing Availability
    Housing Affordability
  • Housing Characteristics
  • Space
    Tenure + Structure Type
    Quality + Neighborhood
  • Recommendations
  • Conclusion

Whether by circumstance or choice, single-mothers are a highly mentioned group in housing policy today because it’s a group at risk. Acting as, in most cases, the primary care provider for their children means that responsible for sheltering, feeding, educating, and supporting their children. In the average American family, there are two children, and in the case of a single-mother, one adult relying on a single income.

Single-Mother Head of Household are a group that is stricken with poverty and low opportunities, stunting any type of growth. Due to their dependence on a single income, lower average earnings and dicrimination based on family status stereotypes, they have trouble in the housing market, whether that be finding housing, or being able to afford it. Even with the additional help of government-funded programs, their likelihood of finding housing that fits their household norm is incredibly low.

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In most cases, the low-income, single-mothers are forced, by poverty, to operate in the low-end of the housing market, and must frequently accept housing that is in extremely poor condition, and is far below the standards they define as acceptable for their child or children. In addition, they typically have low levels of economic resources that force them into low-income households in poorer neighborhoods with restricted access to the best schools and community resources. All of this contributes to the overall housing satisfaction for single-mothers, and their level of satisfaction is incredibly low.

Background Information

The Housing Adjustment Theory, by which this paper is organized by, is the framework for understanding the process by which households seek to maintain equilibrium, the causes of disequilibrium, and the consequences of existing in a state of disequilibrium (Morris & Winter, 1975). The equilibrium is based on housing norms from society, but also from each individual household’s needs. When the norms are not met, it creates a deficit. A deficit is defined as a “condition or set of conditions that is subjectively defined as undesirable in comparison with a norm” (Morris & Winter, 1975). Dissatisfaction is an important in measuring overall housing satisfaction and housing quality.

Single, Female Head of Household with Children, is the technical name for the household group in discussion for this report. The qualifying traits for this household group are simply defined as not being married, they are paying more than half of the cost of keeping up that home for the year, and lastly, a qualifying person (i.e. child) lives with them in that home for more than half of the year. In short, this group is dominated by single mothers who are the sole caretaker of their children - physically and financially.


Population Representation

In the 2018 U.S Census Bureau, data was collected about the amount of family groups and subgroups within that number. Family groups are defined as, by the U.S Census Bureau Subject Definitions as “a group of two people or more related by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together; all such people are considered members of one family.” From the total amount of family groups reported in the U.S, single-mothers account for 11% (U.S Census Bureau, Table G10). But, to show the importance and sheer amount of single-mothers as head of household, they must be compared to single-fathers. Out of all the single-parent households in the U.S, 81% of them are headed by single-mothers versus 19% being single-fathers. To put actual numbers to those percentages, out of the 11 million single-parent households in the U.S, nearly 9 million of them are headed by single-mother households (U.S Census Bureau, Table G10)

Age and Circumstance

Within the household group, the demographics are widely representative. Of all single-mothers, the vast majority, 64%, fall in the age range of 31-46, while 19% are between 15-30, and 17% are between 47-65. The age is organized by the fact of what age the individual became a single-mother (Pew Research Center, 2013). The circumstance in which they became single-mothers is nearly as widespread as age. According to the U.S Census Bureau, 50% of single-mothers have never been married, 29% have been divorced, and 21% are either separated or widowed (U.S Census Bureau, Table FG6).

Family Types

Taking a step back and looking at the whole household group again, specifically within living arrangements. In the U.S, the most common living arrangement for children under 18 is living in two-parent families, coming in at 69%. Second in ranking, 23% of children under 18, living in families with only a single-mother (U.S Census Bureau, Table A3). This number has only increased within the last 60 years, and is shown to increase. During the 1960-2016 period, the amount of children living exclusively with their single-mothers nearly tripled from 8% to 23% (U.S Census Bureau, 2017). The increase is much larger in single-mother households, than in single-father households - which has only increased from 1% to 4% in that same period of time. Whether it’s by circumstance or choice, most children from single-parent families reside with the mother versus the father.


Now that it is evident that single-mothers are often the ones taking care of their children, the question is how do they provide for them? Because they are single-mothers, they have only one income versus a married couple with a dual income. Comparing the two income comes out to the fact that the median income led by a single-mother in 2017 was around $41,700/year, and for a married couple was around $90,400 a year (U.S Census Bureau, 2017). Within that single income, there continue to be pay disparities between men and women known as the “Gender Pay Gap”. Women tend to earn less than men in nearly all professions across the board.

Income, with any group, can be indicative when compared to education level attained. The education level attainment is widely spread out, due to a whole range of reasoning. The data shows that one-third of single-mothers have a college degree, one-third have some college, but no degree, and one-third have a high school degree or less (Kruvelis, Reichlin-Cruse & Gault, 2017)


Based on the information provided by the demographics portion, it sets a good tone for discussing the causes for the disequilibrium that single-mothers are currently facing within their housing norms. Discussing the constraints before the discussion on single-mothers current housing characteristics, gives a background on why they are living the way they are.

Financial Stress

When expenses exceed income, is when financial stress takes a foothold. As a part of the Federal Housing Association’s (FHA) general rule of thumb, households should only be spending 30% of their annual income on housing (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003). First off, simply because households, on average, pay a certain percentage of their income for housing costs, does not necessarily mean that they can afford to pay even that much. Second, 30% of a household income of $100,000 is completely different than 30% of $10,000, in terms of what type of housing can be procured for this amount and how much income they have left to pay non-shelter costs (Clampent-Lundquist, 2003). In a survey conducted with 5,396 single-mother headed households, the average amount of their annual income spent on rent is 43%, well above the FHA’s rule of thumb amount for housing (Berger, Heintze & Harlow, 2008). In that same survey, ⅓ of those households had a difficult time paying for rent and utilities.

In addition to their income, it’s commonly known that single-mothers should be receiving child support. It is reported that only around one third of single-mothers receive any type of child support. Within that received child support, the average amount totaled to around $5,760/year, otherwise noted as less than $500/month. Even further into that, its noted that only 60% of that money was actually ever received by single-mothers and that is because it most often arrives in the beginning, but slowly the payments are reduced or eventually stop over time (Mulroy, 1992).


It’s no wonder that with high levels of financial stress, the risk of falling into poverty is incredibly high. In the U.S., one third, or 34%, of households headed by a single mother are below the poverty line, meaning, they are under what the minimum level of income they should have to be able to provide for their family size (Martin-West, 2019). The U.S Census Bureau reports that the poverty rate of single-mothers is five times the amount of married couples which is around 6%. It is also reported that single-mothers have more debt in their own name twice more often than two-parent families (Martin-West, 2019).

There are studies that showcase the adverse effects of childhood poverty on the wellbeing and future achievements of children (Mulroy, 1992). When it comes to what to blame for the effect, it is often blamed on the family structure of a single-parent family over a two-parent family, and that’s simply not the case. In fact, it’s most often the external factors such as labor markets, which have been found to bear more responsibility than family events for transitions into poverty.

The data for job security of single-mothers is notes that 50% of single-mothers are employed year round, 30% are employed part-time, and 20% are not employed at all. The unemployment rate of single-mothers site at a high rate of 7.6% compared to the U.S average unemployment rate of 5% (Mulroy, 1992). In addition to this, with being employed full time comes benefits such as healthcare, time-off, benefits, etc. According to this data, almost 50% of single-mothers do not have this luxury.

Housing Availability

Taking into consideration a single income and additional non-shelter costs, the housing market is scarces for single-mothers. Relying on government assistance is just one way single-mothers meet the demand of housing on their income. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notes that single-mother households are the most likely household group to receive some form of housing assistance. The two types of assistance aimed toward low-income groups such as single-mothers are unit-based assistance, and tenant-based assistance. Unit-based assistance provides subsidized rental units in the most common form of public housing, while tenant-based assistance is providing vouchers or certificates to help eligible households rent approved units (Berger, Heintze & Harlow, 2008). The housing assistance programs are intended to promote self-sufficiency and improve self-esteem by moving low-income households, especially single-mothers, towards economic self-sufficiency.

These types of assistance are great in speech, but not ideal in practice. Subsidized housing is in such high demand that the waiting lists are incredibly long for these types of assistance. The housing is in such high demand because there isn’t much funding available for this. From 1981-1988, the Reagan administration cut funding for conventional public housing from $4.2 billion to $573 million, nationwide (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003). With the funding cut, it also decreased the construction of new affordable units, depleting the affordable housing stock. That affordable housing stock is still decreasing each year - between 1997 and 1999, the number of affordable units dropped by 13%, or 750,000 units (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003). With this cutback, there are roughly 40 affordable units for every 100 households in need. In terms of single-mothers, roughly 29% of single-mothers receive any type of housing assistance - 19% being unit-based, and 10% being tenant-based (Berger, Heintze & Harlow, 2008).

Due to the government stepping back on providing affordable housing, the U.S have been historically dependent on the private sector to meet the demand for affordable housing. Like before, great in speech - not so much in practice. With the private sector, everything is for profit. The housing markets method of supplying affordable units presumably filter down to low-income households (Clampet-Lundquist, 2003). Many of the units predicted to filter down are most often upgraded by developers for affluent households or demolished for new units because it’s easier than avoiding the landlord's cost of maintenance.

Housing Affordability

Considering a large quantity of single-mothers are dealing with financial stress and troubles finding low-income housing, let’s discuss the housing affordability for those single-mothers that do not receive housing assistance, which is around 71% ( (Berger, Heintze & Harlow, 2008).

Housing costs have increased for everyone, all household types. The rising costs have risen faster than income, resulting in a disproportionate relationship between the two. With low wages and an annual income of single-mothers, they are considered an at-risk group. With spending well over the recommended 30% of their income on housing, there leave little room for non-shelter costs such as childcare, healthcare, food, etc. Pressure in meeting housing costs on limited incomes is a critical factor that set the housing affordability slide in motion. If that slide continues with no change on its current path, a single-mother can face overcrowding, eviction, homelessness, etc.

Housing Characteristics


Based on the U.S Census Bureau table of ‘Households by Size: 1960 - Present’ - the average household size is 3.14 persons. For the sake of this discussion, and knowing what the topic of this report is about, we can assume one adult, and two children.

From there, we can assume that the minimum number of bedrooms needed to house that household of one adult and two children, is at least two bedrooms. Depending on the sex of the children, possibly three bedrooms. Based on the American Public Health Association, three people should have a minimum of 1000 square feet to live comfortably. That number is based on the suggestive amount of space a household should have depending on their size and needs. From there, taking a look at how housing space is divided up in the U.S, it shows that 22.8%, or the majority, of housing space in the U.S fall in between a range of 1,000 to 1,499 square feet - range that is most suitable for single-mothers. This data concludes that single-mothers should ideally have plenty of housing to choose from.

Tenure + Structure Type

Single-mother home ownership is at a total of 31% and steadily declining. Contributing to this decline is the lack of affordable housing for sale, making it difficult for single-mothers to accumulate that much income for ownership on a single income (Cook & Bruin, 1994).

Because of this, it is most often the case where single-mothers rent, instead of owning a home, which limits their structure type to either multi-family dwellings or single-family homes (Jones, 2015). Single-mothers rentership is at 65% and inclining, says Redfin. The remaining 4% is for single-mothers who homeshare with family or friends, which has its own host of problems resulting in and even lower housing satisfaction. With the same source of information, it notes that the mean duration of single-mother residence is around two and a half years - not a long time in terms of moving an entire family.


Knowing that the average single-mother is a renter, with an average family size of an additional two children and most often occupying a 2-bedroom home, let’s look at the costs of those homes. Price differentiates when taking in the notion of location, but comparing the price of an average two bedroom apartment, and the earning wage needed to be able to afford that two-bedroom, one can see that it’s not your average wage (Figure ??). In addition to this, being the sole provider for their children, single-mothers are in charge of providing food, child-care, transportation, healthcare, etc. According to the Economic Policy Institute Family Budget, a single-mother headed family in Minneapolis, Minnesota average monthly cost of living totaled to roughly $7,474/month, which totals to $89,692/year - well above a single income.

When one spends so much of their income on housing, they have little left for basic need items such as food clothing, medical care, childcare, and unexpected events. Some studies have documented the coping strategies that single-mothers choose to do in order to remain housed - they make ‘trade-offs.’ These ‘trade-offs’ include choosing between paying rent or utilities at one time - depending on the level of consequence, or not buying food or medications in order to not be pushed into homelessness (Jones, 2015).

Quality + Neighborhood

Based on the constraints and housing characteristics discussed so far, single-mothers are facing a ‘Housing Squeeze’ which is when income has declined and the housing options are then restricted (Mulroy, 1992). Because of this restriction, single-mothers face many challenges with low-quality housing, inadequate housing, or unsafe neighborhoods because it’s often the only option they have with their limited income (Jones, 2015).

Single-mothers are more environment dependent than any other household group (Yang, 2013). They often live in areas that are closer to non-residential uses and farther away from commercial services, employment opportunities, and quality public transportation, making them overall less satisfied with their neighborhood. Due to this fact, single-mothers often report feelings of isolation, role overload, and lack of access to public and social resources that could help them out (Cook & Bruin 1994).


Based off of the information stated here, one recommendation could be to address the affordable housing shortage in a new light. Government partnerships are a great way of tackling the shortage. Whether this is done already, or not at all - there could always be more. Strategies for governments and stakeholders to improve access to affordable housing could be along the lines of funding construction, regulating and cooperating with developers, mediating dialogue for renters/rentees and supporting community organizations.

At a smaller level - creating a housing service tailored towards single-mothers that enlightens and encourages affordable housing and its options. This service could educate these women about applications, negotiating with landlords, etc. This could also connect single-mothers with other single-mothers, and creating a central service for this at-risk group seeking housing information and assistance.

In addition to this, child support should be maintained and mandated if necessary. With a vast majority of child support steadily declining in payments, and eventually stopping - it’s a serious issue to address. If child support is mandated by the court, then it should be upheld by the court and a mediator of sorts. As well as, child support actually reflects the cost of sheltering a child in the private market. The amount of child support is determined based on a certain percentage, depending on state, of one’s income. But what if their income is incredibly low, so they have little to contribute?


This report is just highlighting the existing problems that occur in the daily life of single-mothers. The challenges they face creates large problems in not only their current and future outcomes, but also their childrens, which makes this an even more pressing group to focus on.

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