Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why is America So Far Behind?

These last years, I have connected with many single moms from around the world. In sharing stories, people were often baffled by how far behind the U.S. Is in comparison to other Western countries. I started to make some of my own comparisons which ultimately led me to begin the Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy anthology.

Information on child support is difficult to find, which is baffling considering how many women and children it effects. One of the most comprehensive studies I have found over the years is “Worst Off: Single Parent Families in the United States.” This paper compared U.S. single-parent families with single-parent families in 16 other high-income countries.

We find that U.S. single-parent families are the worst off. They have the highest poverty rate. They have the highest rate of no health care coverage. They face the stingiest income support system. They lack the paid-time-off-from-work entitlements that in comparison countries make it easier for single parents to balance caregiving and jobholding. They must wait longer than single parents in comparison countries for early childhood education to begin. They have a low rate of child support receipt.

U.S. single parents have both above average employment rates and above average poverty rates. High rates of low-wage employment combined with inadequate income support explain the paradox of high poverty despite high employment.”1

Nowhere is the gap more apparent than with maternity leave and sick days. When my son was born, I worked from my hospital bed. A few days after his birth, I rolled him into my office in his stroller and shoved all my files into the bottom to take home. 

I needed the money. 

I did not receive any child support at all for the first year of my son's life. I can barely remember that year. Not only did my son not have a father, he really didn't have much of a mother eitherat least in the way I had always envisioned being a mother.

Fortunately, I was able to work from home often and hire my sister as our nanny for his first two years. That said, I still cry when I think about his first year and the enormous loss for both of us.

I remember a wise old crone chastising me for not going after my son's father for child support. I suppose, at the time, I was afraid his “father” would disappear altogether so I didn't pursue it. She pleaded with me, “What sort of message will this send to your son? When children don't receive child support they associate it with their own self-worth. A child who receives nothing in child support comes to believe s/he is worth nothing.”

Photo by Maurizio Peddis
When I think about collecting child support—for both myself and women throughout the world, I remember those words. Our children deserve child support. Mothers also deserve to be financially supported.

It is extraordinarily difficult to work as a single mother in the United States and make ends meet. There are just not enough social structures in place to ensure that both mothers and children get what they need.

In my case, a high-commissioned job ensured our basic needs were met, but it came at a very high price physically and emotionally. My body broke down, I was sick frequently and I was severely underweight. My son did not get the attention from me his first year deserved.

Try being a working single mom with sick children. 

In the U.S., It is impossible. 

If you try to maintain a normal job with regular school holidays, sick days and everything else, you will be unlikely to keep it for very long. I remember my ex-father-in-law exclaiming with disgust several times: “I just don't understand why you don't have a real job.” 

(My books don't count, and apparently raising his grandchildren doesn't count either.) 

It would be much easier to maintain a “real” job if someone were co-parenting with me and sharing the weight of sick days and school holidays. But the U.S. is unique as a “high-income” country in not having systems in place that would help single moms.

This became all the more apparent to me when I moved to Norway with my children last year. Here in Norway single moms have special considerations for paid leave. They can legally take more days off work if they have more children or are single mothers. For instance, after working for a qualifying period of four weeks, a person without kids can take five paid days off for sickness.
  • If you have one or two children, you can take 10 additional sick days off – and take time off for any doctor/dentist/school appointment with no problem.
  • If you have three or more children, you are entitled to 15 days a year.
  • If you are a single mom of one or two children, you are entitled to 20 days a year.
  • If you are a single mom caring for more than three children, you are entitled to 30 days of paid time off.
There are additional provisions for longer sicknesses. If you have chronically ill or disabled child, you can get ten days in addition for each chronically ill or disabled child. You are also entitled to the same number of days if you work part-time.

The following chart demonstrates the disparity very clearly.
Table from "Worst Off - Single-Parent Families in the United States

Notice that the averages and mediums listed exclude the U.S., which is the only country of the 16 studied which provides zero days of annual paid leave. The study notes:

Many U.S. employers voluntarily provide paid annual leave, sick days, and holidays but many also do not...Based on the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) of individuals, 32% of single parents and 64% of married parents reported having access to paid leave at their main job in 2011.1

The study also notes that child care is expensive in the U.S., compared to the other 16 countries where it is generally provided. Single mothers with children under five have a particularly rough time with this, as for “many single parents, actual or potential earnings are too little to pay for child care.”2

While public education is available for children over five, it generally ends in the early afternoon, leaving a huge gap in the day. In addition, school districts in my home State of Oregon are only in session 165 days a year. 3

Not to get too far off track, but when you take into account that most people nowadays are forced to drop their kids off at school whether they are sick or well, it also means that kids are often sick more frequently now. Additionally, when you are already living under the chronic stress of being a single parent, you are also more susceptible to becoming ill. I remember some years where my children and I were sick more often than we were well. 
Lastly, of the 16 countries studied, the United States was the only country that did not provide a child allowance, averaging about $150 a month per child. Some countries also provided an additional amount for single mothers.4

In Norway, we receive approximately $100 a month per child. This doesn't go very far in today's world—raising children is expensive—but it does help! It is the only time in years that I haven't had to worry about paying my children's allowance on time and whether or not we can afford to attend birthday parties.

In quite a few of the “high-income” countries, we seem to have lost a sense of communitywhich would help single moms out more. Many grandparents are working in their later years or live further away. Neighbors and extended family aren't what they used to be. Western societies have become more individualist and driven by capitalism—and no one suffers more from this than single moms and their children.

Child support enforcement seems to be one of the biggest obstacles in supporting healthy single-parent families. I highly recommend reading the full study in detail, which is available online as a pdf. I know in my own life that not receiving child support has been one of the biggest hurdles in raising healthy and happy children. 

Looking to Scandinavian countries seems wise in determining the best course of action in reforming child support enforcement in the United States. As Think Progress recently noted:

As of 2010, all European countries except the Netherlands guaranteed child support payments to custodial parents even if the noncustodial parent couldn’t pay or could only pay part. Sweden goes even further and has a guaranteed assistance program in which all custodial parents get a child support payment from the government no matter what, and the government then collects what it can from the noncustodial ones. Such a system seems to work — 95 percent of these parents get child support payments.”5

Even though I have remarried—and life is considerably easier in Norway—there is not a day that goes by that I don't have to deny my children something because of lack of child support.

This is not something any of us will likely “get over” for the rest of our lives.

The authors of the “Worst Off” study conclude: "U.S. single-parent families will remain the worst off unless the U.S. expands its family-supporting policies."

-Trista Hendren, an excerpt from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy - out later this year.

Order here.

This anthology will be offered freely as a PDF to any woman who has been a single mom who is struggling financially.

1 Casey, Timothy and Maldonado, Maldonado. “WORST OFF – SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES.” December 2012.
2 Casey, Timothy and Maldonado, Maldonado. “WORST OFF – SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES.” December 2012.
3 Oregonian Editorial Board. “More days for Oregon students, more pay for Oregon teachers: Agenda 2013.” The Oregonian. August 31, 2013.
4 Casey, Timothy and Maldonado, Maldonado. “WORST OFF – SINGLE-PARENT FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES.” December 2012.
5 Covert, Bryce. “The Brilliant Idea From Europe That Could Revolutionize Child Support.” Think Progress. April 16, 2015.

1 comment:

  1. Lucid, inarguable facts, personal experience, beautifully written.