Kayla Frawley said she felt “lucky” when she was hit by a car and broke her leg.
When you’re a single mother, the 31-year-old Frawley said, the task of keeping your household afloat without sacrificing family time can feel insurmountable – to the point that getting into a terrible accident came as a blessing to her because it meant she got paid medical leave from work and could spend more time with her son, now 2, while she recovered.
As a single mother and her family’s only earner, she said, there was high pressure for her to resume working soon after childbirth.
“And that means time away from your newborn,” said Frawley, who lives in Denver. “That’s time away from giving them the best head start. And that’s probably the biggest trade-off I made.”
Single mothers in Colorado are increasingly forced to make grueling trade-offs – e.g., sacrificing healthy food to pay rent, or delaying a needed medical procedure to be able to afford child care – according to a study published this week by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy. Sixty-two percent of single mothers in the state lack adequate income to cover basic needs, including food, housing, child care and health care. That’s up from 54 percent in 2000.
The study found that nearly one in four households in Colorado (about 430,000) live below the self-sufficiency standard. That standard refers to the amount of money required to cover basic necessities, and it varies by location; it’s cheaper to get by in rural areas.
But this statewide problem is much more pronounced for single-mother households, which make up 8 percent of families in Colorado and are burdened at a rate much higher than any other household type. Single fathers, who account for just 3 percent of households in Colorado, have inadequate income 43 percent of the time.
“The very high rates of income inadequacy for single mothers compared to single fathers suggests that a combination of gender and the presence of children – being a woman with children – but especially gender, is associated with the highest rates of income inadequacy,” the study summarized. “The causes of these high levels of income inadequacy are many, including pay inequity and gender-based discrimination, as well as the expenses associated with children, particularly child care.”
For single mothers of color, getting by is even tougher: 74 percent lack adequate income, compared to 53 percent of white single mothers, according to the study.
The takeaway for Diane Pearce, a University of Washington professor and lead author of the study, is that meeting basic needs in Colorado is so challenging that something essential, or sometimes multiple things, are likely to fall by the wayside in a single-mother household.
“You have to ask, when people are below the (self-sufficiency) standard: What are they sacrificing?” Pearce said. “You might double up, forgo health care. You’re gonna use sketchy child care because you can’t afford regular child care unless you’re among the lucky few who get assistance. So when you’re below the standard, something is giving way.”
For Kimberly Ford, a single mother of a 5-year-old son, meeting basic needs has forced her to make the same trade-off Frawley said was agonizing enough that getting hit by a car felt like a benefit.
“I’m trading one-on-one time with my son, the ability to be a parent and enjoy it,” said Ford, 29, who works for RTD in Denver. “I think I trade my happiness to be able to take care of basic needs. I was a very driven college student, and I still am driven, but I feel like certain things that I was really passionate about, certain joys – like time with my son – I trade to make those basic needs happen.”
Frawley said she works two jobs and said she doesn’t know another single mother who doesn’t do the same. But without such a rigorous work schedule, she added, “I wouldn’t be able to get us nutritious groceries.”
“Time away from your kid is the biggest sacrifice, but there’s no choice because you have to make money,” she said.
One of the key findings of the study is that overall in Colorado, low-income households are underserved because many government assistance programs require recipients’ incomes to be below the federal poverty line, which is significantly lower than the self-sufficiency standard. The study suggests that only about a third of households in Colorado that are unable to meet basic needs fall below the poverty line.
The key statistic – Official Poverty Measure – is the same throughout Colorado. That standard states that a family of two with annual income of $16,460 or more is not considered “poor” anywhere in Colorado. It doesn’t take into account the vastly different levels of income that a household might need to get by, which can vary within Colorado from $25,500 to more than $71,000 for a single adult with a preschooler, according to the study.
As a result, 43 percent of single mothers with children age 6 or younger fall below the self-sufficiency standard but above the poverty line.
Single mothers interviewed for this story said they and other single mothers they know frequently stress about whether professional advancement – even if just from one low-paying job to a slightly higher-paying one – will mean they are priced out of benefits they rely on.
“If we can’t somehow magically force the private sector to bring wages up to meet the self-sufficiency standard, people have to rely on housing assistance, on Medicaid,” said Claire Levy, the Center on Law and Policy’s executive director. “And if we can’t put more public funding into housing and expand access to child care assistance, then people are going to continue to have to short-change their families as they try to make ends meet.”
It is a problem she doesn’t foresee will improve soon.
“There’s really no sign of slowdown in some of these costs. With housing costs, the curve may bend, but it doesn’t seem to be coming down. And with wages – even though wages are ticking up for the first time in a long time – there’s such a huge gap to overcome. We’re not going to get close in a long, long time,” Levy said.
That’s a concern across the state, but, as with virtually everything the study considers, single mothers, and particularly single mothers of color, are likely to feel the sting more than the other 92 percent of households in Colorado.
Ford said she’s not surprised by some of the grim figures in the study because she knows firsthand how difficult it is to get by as a single mother. But she said that she and other single mothers she knows try not to get discouraged by the numbers, or to think of themselves as victims.
“I would say that there’s a lot of beauty in single parenthood because you grow a resilience,” she said. “I try to plant that seed in people’s minds, that we’re not hopeless, and that it’s not always about us struggling. There’s beauty in the process.”
She added, “But it is really hard.”
The Colorado Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs and engages with Coloradans – about public policy, politics, government and issues that matter in our square, swing state.