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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families
Ariel Kalil Rebecca M. Ryan


Mothers in fragile families experience higher rates of poverty and material hardship than their married counterparts. Although a large share of these mothers cohabit with their child's father, and many more live with other adults, unwed mothers have similar rates of economic hardship across a variety of living arrangements. Differences in economic well-being are far larger between mothers in fragile families and married mothers than among unwed mothers in different living arrangements, making clear that living arrangements do not primarily drive economic conditions in this population.

The primary cause of poverty and material hardship, instead, appears to be unwed mothers' (and fathers') low earnings. The limited ability of mothers in fragile families to command high wages stems from low education as well as physical, emotional, and mental health problems. Indeed, very few unmarried mothers in the FFCWS could support themselves and their children at more than twice the federal poverty level, given their average earnings. Moreover, mothers with low earnings are unlikely to be able to accumulate assets or purchase a home, and a lack of assets can exacerbate financial difficulties.

Given these economic challenges, how do mothers in fragile families make ends meet? As we have shown, various public programs, particularly those that provide in-kind assistance, do successfully lessen economic hardship in fragile families. However, many of the most effective programs, such as the EITC, hinge on mothers' employment. As the nation's economy emerges painfully slowly from recession, there is reason for concern about the stability of the public safety net for single mothers, particularly those with little education and other barriers to employment. Henceforth, single mothers may turn more often to private sources of support for cash, in-kind, and instrumental assistance. Although private safety nets are essential to many mothers' economic survival, they may not facilitate long-term economic mobility.

Among promising policy prescriptions to bolster fragile families' economic supports, perhaps the most important is to strengthen the public safety net, particularly the "invisible safety net" of in-kind benefits, to help families cope in an unstable economy. Moreover, as more single mothers enter the labor market in today's weak economy, it may become increasingly important to have a private safety net. A next step would thus be to strengthen the availability and efficacy of community-based programs that mimic private financial or instrumental support when mothers cannot receive it from their networks. Examples include programs that provide emergency cash assistance and food aid directly as well as programs to foster and perhaps formalize the provision of loans, child care, and in-kind assistance among families. Overall, it is important for policy makers to recognize that with rates of nonmarital childbirth at their current level, and potentially rising still, fragile families are likely an enduring fixture among U.S. families. It is thus essential to strengthen policies that both support their economic self-sufficiency and alleviate their hardship during inevitable times of economic distress.