How Marginalized Single Parents Are Uniting to Improve Community Finances on Their Own Terms

Single parents don't receive nearly enough systemic assistance. So, from mutual aid networks to childcare collectives, they're instead helping each other improve their financial situations.

An image of floating money being caught with a net.
Photo: Getty Images.

Almost 20 years ago, economist-cum-entrepeneur Sylvia Ann Hewlett, then-executive director for the National Parenting Association Nancy Rankin, and inimitable public intellectual Cornel West published Taking Parenting Public: The Case for a New Social Movement, a co-edited book released in 2002.

In the preface, Hewlett and West wrote that "the political invisibility and cultural devaluing of parents has blinded us to their enormously important societal role," adding that, looking forward, "a vigorous parents' movement could well create the energy that would reinvent government and banish the apathy and cynicism that haunt our public life."

The book also makes this clear: We cannotunderestimate the role (and the needs!) of single parents in particular—within any such movement.

Nearly one quarter of children in the United States now live with a single parent, according to the Pew Research Center. Those households can struggle more financially.

In 2020, family households maintained by men without a spouse earned a median income of about $34,000 less than married-couple households, whose median income is just over six figures. Meanwhile, the median income for families maintained by women without a spouse was around $52,000 less than that of married couples—all according to a report on income and poverty issued in September 2021 by the Census Bureau.

Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University, recounted in her contribution to Taking Parenting Public how historically, many of our most important "polices have been nurtured by partnerships of government and popularly rooted voluntary associations," and major actors in the "early 1900s state and national legislation for mothers and children were the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and the National Congress of Mothers (which eventually turned into the PTA)."

Massive women's associations in the early 20th century championed "mothers' pensions" to assist women who lost a spouse, or in some cases, to aid mothers who never married, Skocpol now tells Parents. She emphasizes the commonplace view at the time: Child-rearing was seen as socially valuable. Today, on the other hand, we assume mothers (especially single mothers) are also working—and Skocpol points to a lack of public support providing single parents cash payments.

Yet, Skocpol also says we seem to have entered "a period where people are reconsidering whether it's a good thing to help—for the public to help children, all children, and particularly to pull children out of poverty, because the United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the advanced industrial world."

The American Families Plan proposed in 2021 by the Biden administration arguably reflects that ongoing reconsideration; it would augment existing subsidies and keep child care costs for low- and middle-income families below eight percent of their income.

But many communities cannot afford to wait on the federal government.

"We're always fighting for legislation and supports for parents and for childcare," Arelene Inouye, secretary for United Teachers Los Angeles, tells Parents. She also underscores the actions her union has taken on the local level to bolster both the working conditions and financial situations of members.

For example, during negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District in 2021, United Teachers Los Angeles persuaded the district to agree to a child care stipend for teachers. Thanks to the union-garnered agreement, public school educators could worry a little less about the expenses involved in raising their own kids while at work teaching the children of other parents.

"If you're a parent and you're a teacher, how do you do that?" Inouye asks.

While LAUSD does not intend to continue to offer the stipend, Inouye explains, any member with dependent care can elect to participate in a new Online Academy, a remote teaching program not available to educators in most other unions.

"That means even if you have an elderly parent or, you know, you have children, you have the option to work at home by going to the Online Academy," she says, adding that a side letter agreement between the union and LAUSD includes language that protects those actively caring for dependents by preventing the district from disciplining teachers for emergency situations at home during remote instruction.

The Online Academy independent study option, Inouye adds, is a way for the union to help ensure that single-parent teachers and other members with childcare needs are met—so they can keep teaching and earning an income during the pandemic.

The new virtual program, also known as the City of Angels School, started with just 2,000 participating, but the COVID-19 Delta variant created a surge so that the number of educators involved is now close to 20,000, Inouye says.

The union's "bargaining for the common good" approach and related advocacy provides educators and their communities greater say over their finances. UTLA formed a partnership with First Financial Credit Union to provide financial assistance in the form of fixed-rate loans, deferrals on loan repayments, and waiver of early withdrawal fees on certificates of deposit for members impacted by strike actions.

Thanks to the union's payroll disruption relief arrangements with the California Credit Union, educators in Los Angeles are practicing a public pedagogy premised upon improving not just student learning conditions by bettering their working conditions, but also upon securing the financial future of members in ways that reflect the needs of communities and parents—single parents in particular.

The teacher's union continues to offer child care at union meetings and at convocations of the House of Representatives, where UTLA tries to advocate for policies favorable to working families.

Adilah Adi, a member of the Detroit Radical Childcare Collective since 2017, also stresses how important it is for organizations to provide child care at those sorts of meetings.

"At community events when the org is funding the child care, more single parents are able to engage with the community," she tells Parents. "On their own, it can be more difficult."

The collective in Detroit provides child care at conferences, local events, and at the homes of community residents. The child care providers in the collective charge a living wage of $15 to $20 per hour, but in group settings, individual parents do not have to pay. If a family is experiencing a crisis, Adi explains, they can reach out to the DRCC for free child care and other support—such as having people attend court with them or assist with transportation—and the DRCC can reach out to their support network and the broader community they regularly interact with for help as needed.

The collective also engages in trade for services for families who can't afford the child care cost, which is something parents and guardians of different stripes in Detroit can consider when they need to limit expenditures.

When the org is funding the child care, more single parents are able to engage with the community.

The work of the DRCC is explicitly and consciously political, Adi explains. In addition to creating activity stations for kids, they're also talking to them about feminism, anti-racism, Black Power, environmental justice, restorative justice, and progressive as well as liberation politics.

"We're doing that in a way that doesn't traumatize them, but makes them informed," she says.

They also practice mutual aid as part of their politics—as illustrated in late September 2021, when the DRCC posted an image on their Facebook page that states in all caps, "please help a single mother get food," along with Cashapp, PayPal, and Venmo info.

Journalist Dani McClain tells Parents that, partly as a consequence of the pandemic, we're in a moment wherein "mutual aid" has become common outside of the communities that have relied on it for a long time.

McLain, who authored We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood, points to the West African tradition of su-su or sou-sou sharing, now practiced in neighborhoods throughout the United States, which can be "like a rotating loan program, or maybe it would be a grant program, where people are saving funds that they then make available to one person in the circle...every month or whatever time period they're working with, so that someone has a much bigger chunk of money to use for whatever they need than they would if they were saving independently."

In addition to specific practices like su-su, McLain says what she personally experienced and what she observed most often when doing research for her book are the informal examples of mutual aid among families. For instance, she said someone might say to a friend: "Hey, I'm sick, and my kid still needs to eat, and I can't make dinner. Can you bring over a pot of soup?"

Linda Jacobs, author of The Single Parent: Confident and Successful, and the ministry ambassador at the Church Initiative, the parent ministry overseeing the Single & Parenting program, says she prayed that religious institutions "would realize how valuable single parents are, and how much they can add to the church in the community."

Jacobs admits to incessantly pestering those in her organization to do more for single parents, and she says others spoke up about a program for single parents too, which is how S&P was born. It's a 13-week, video-based support group, but it's also much more. Local Single & Parenting support groups convene weekly across the US, some in-person and some virtual since the onset of the pandemic.

"When you are single and parenting, you have a whole community," Jacobs says, adding that parents of similarly-aged children tend to group together.

The program emphasizes budgeting and finances, but participants also share their expenses, and the camaraderie bolstered by collective knowledge encourages single parents to start saving a little on a routine basis.

"I encourage single parents to call each other and talk to each other about things, and they do," Jacobs says. They discuss strategies for saving money, like cutting back on what's not essential and limiting how many times they eat out every week.

In the same vein, Chantel Cox founded Positive Reflections, a non-profit organization that empowers marginalized single women with children to break the cycle of generational trauma that she experienced firsthand—as the daughter of a single mom, raised by her grandmother, and as a single mother of two daughters of her own. In trying to find herself, Cox says she found her way to helping other women, which led to creating a space where women without partners can learn from each other and help themselves.

"With Positive Reflections, you have to look at yourself and like what you see," she tells Parents. "You have to look within yourself and like who you are."

"I'm helping them to get a credit card, and showing them how to use it," Cox says of the single moms she works with in Virginia. "So then we create a space of accountability where we're checking in one with another. We're checking in as a team. Now we have a support system where they've been introduced to other women so they're realizing, now I'm not alone; the world is not against me."

A multitude of examples, only a few of which are mentioned above, illustrate ostensibly growing concern for both the psycho-emotional and the financial well-being of children and parents—particularly those raising kids without the support of a partner.

Examples of that concern translated into solidarity abound, from long-standing institutions such as Parents Without Partners (a support group for single parents and their children in existence since 1959) to the relatively small Oakland-based Moms 4 Housing collective (which made waves in November 2019 when mothers took direct action and moved into a vacant home with their children, kickstarting a new nationwide movement for the unsheltered).

The "vigorous parents' movement" Hewlett and West envisioned back in 2002 may also already be underway in incipient form. It's just that the "political invisibility" they referred to—which arguably applies to the work of single, custodial moms and dads most of all—can keep us from recognizing and appreciating it.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles