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Educational attainment has long been the hallmark of opportunity in America and our educational system is regarded as one of the finest in the world. Yet, a growing population of single parents is facing new and unique barriers to benefitting from that system. The impacts have serious and severe implications for our economy, our workforce, and the health and wellbeing of our entire population.
In 2019, Family Scholar House piloted a new program to address Health, Education, Resilience, Opportunity, and Economic Stability (HEROES). The multi-year pilot serving more than 1,000 single parents provided self-sufficiency tools and resources for those not currently receiving Family Scholar House residency.
The results were impressive. By accelerating these individuals into programming and resources ahead of residency, most participants increased their scores on self-sufficiency before residency, making them far more likely to succeed and finish their education. Participants reported better physical and mental health. On average, scores significantly increased in the areas of self-sufficiency in housing, income, health care access, adult education, money managment, and life skills. Participants reported more days per month of positive mental health and fewer days of poor physical health per month than before program participation.
Pursuing a college degree as a single parent carries many challenges, but the cost of child care is especially burdensome for single parents. The average costs of center-based child care in Kentucky plus costs for after school care and summertime care for a full-time worker is between $15,805 and $16,865 annually. Married couples spend 10% of their income on child care on average compared to 33% of the median household income for single parents. This is in direct contrast to the recommendation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that families spend now more than 7% of their annual income on child care, but child care is not a negotiable budget item. On top of that, single parents suffer from a phenomenon called “time poverty,” a phrase coined by Dr. Ross O’Hara. Single parents spend more time individually on primary or secondary care for their children since they don’t have a partner to help.
Further, many single parents also work while pursuing their education and rearing children. More than half of single mothers pursuing higher education work 20 or more hours per week; another four in ten work 30 hours or more per week. Time poverty makes it harder for single parents to devote adequate time to schooling when coupled with the issue of missing class or not completing coursework due to shifting work schedules, sick children, transportation issues, etc.
No conversation about the American education system would be complete without touching on the aggressive rise in the cost of attending college in this country. The average cost of obtaining an undergraduate degree has increased 169% from 1980 to 2020, or 180% if adjusted for inflation. The total cost of attending a four-year college full-time in 1980, including tuition, fees, and room and board, was $10,231 per year. That amount was $28,775 per year in fiscal year 2020.
Each of these dynamics contribute to the overwhelming data showing that mental health issues plague single parents. Research shows that single parents are far more likely to experience mental illness, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Single mothers report nearly twice the level of general stress and parenting stress of their partnered peers, and they have higher rates of mood disorders and substance use disorder. Addressing this societal handicap is critical in breaking cycles of poverty, illness, and economic health. Children living in a home with an adult experiencing mental illness suffer an additional adverse childhood experience and children living in poverty are more likely to have disrupted brain development, shortened educational trajectories, increased contact with the child welfare or justice system, and increased trouble with employment later in life.
Increasing the educational outcomes of single parents makes sense for anyone interested in growing and maintaining a strong economy. Single parents with postsecondary credentials earn up to 62% more in their lifetimes than those without them. Single mothers are 32% less likely to live in poverty for every educational degree they attain. This means less reliance on costly government programs like Medicaid, SNAP, WIC, and TANF. Not only are single parents with college degrees far more likely to hold jobs, pay more in taxes, have better health outcomes, and report less use of public benefits, but their children are also more likely to do the same. Programs such as HEROES make a clear and compelling case for further investment in interventions of this nature.
Family Scholar House is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the cycle of poverty and transforming their communities by empowering families and youth to succeed in education and achieve life-long self-sufficiency. Connection to Family Scholar House’s education and workforce services is as simple as a phone call to 1.877.677.9177. To learn more and to read the most recent white paper on HEROES, visit https://familyscholarhouse.org/white-papers/.
Cathe Dykstra is the CEO and Chief Possibility Officer at Family Scholar House.