The Myth of Self Sufficiency as Success for Low-Income Single Mothers
With large numbers of low-income single mothers facing a difficult job market while simultaneously experiencing the erosion of social welfare aid, it is vitally important to understand their efforts and the obstacles they face, trying to move out of poverty. This dissertation examines the ways in which a group of low-income single mothers, who were at the center of the enthnographic study presented here, struggled and also succeeded. Attention is paid to the institutional and personal obstacles that impacted the progress of the women. The research, including annual interviews, took place over a three-year period from 2009-2012, as part of a larger ethnographic study on the low-income single parents who were participants in a community based antipoverty program in South Boston. The articles call into question the ways in which social institutions like schools, workplaces, and social services agencies affect the progress of single mother-headed families, raising challenges to conventional approaches and embedded assumptions about social mobility. The mothers’ stories presented in the articles speak directly to the myth of the welfare queen single mother by offering a view of a group of low-income single mothers working very hard to parent, work and attend school. The research is presented in three articles: Article One: Social Network Development Among Low-income Single Mothers: Potential for Bridging, Bonding and Building Social Capital. This article explores social networks formed by the interviewees through their participation in the antipoverty program. The interview data refute the claim that bonds within the community hinder women in their attempts to move their families out of poverty. We observed benefits from social networks that emerged as a result of program participation in the following categories: practical support, emotional support, modeling and mentoring, and expansion of information resources. We also uncovered a new kind of social network formed among low-income women who were actively pursuing a path out of poverty. These hybrid networks, building social networks (BSNs), form among people who are straddling two worlds, and as such, are uniquely positioned to help one another. Article Two: Moving “Up and Out,” Together: Exploring the Benefits of the Mother-Child Bond for Low-Income Single Mother-headed Families. It is a commonly held belief, even among poverty researchers, that bearing children or bearing additional children negatively impacts the social mobility of low-income single mothers. The data here offer a more complex view of the interactions between mothers and children as they both try to move forward, suggesting that the mother-child bond may be a source of motivation and support. Benefits of the mother-child bond emerged in the following categories: forming an alliance around education for mother and child, viewing children as the primary motivation to move forward, and changing behaviors in order to be role models for children. Article Three: The Winding Path Back to School: Hidden Obstacles to Higher Education for Low-Income Single Mothers. This article explores obstacles to the pursuit of higher education for these low-income single mothers, uncovering challenges that have yet to be explored in the literature about higher education for low-income parents. Findings revealed institutional and practical obstacles to their pursuit of higher education, including conflicting advice from “experts” and difficulty retaining public benefits while attending school. The primary obstacles that emerged were categorized as follows: (a) winding paths and dead ends, (b) difficult transitions, (c) short-sighted decisions, and (d) inflexible institutions. Also evident among interviewees were misconceptions about the policies and practices of institutions of higher education, such as not predicting the difficulty of transferring credits between schools and lack of understanding about differences between degree programs.