For 32-year-old Melissa Vierra, paying the bills with two kids - 19 months and 10 - is an equation that seems to never add up.
“If I sat down and figured out my monthly bills, just the straight you know rent, car payment, car insurance, not talking groceries, gas, clothes toiletries, I was about 500 dollars short every month,” she said.
Last week the water was shut off in her Manchester apartment, and a few weeks earlier she lost her job of 15 years at a local bank. She is now in the process of applying for TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. (See infographic at the bottom of this story for more on TANF.)
And she’s also on the job hunt but despite her many years of experience, with only a GED, getting a higher or even equal paying job is proving to be difficult.
It’s something Vierra’s 10-year-old daughter Alexa has picked up on.
“And she will be like Mom can we get x, y, z. and I will be like how much is it? She will be like 3 dollars, but mommy if we don’t have the money, it is ok, we don’t have to get it. Kids don’t do that, kids are supposed to have the gimmies and supposed to ask for things. And ya you tell them no, you don’t always give them what they want because then they will grow up to be spoiled brats. But your kids should never have to look at you and say if we don’t have the money its ok I understand. That is just not something that is supposed to come out of your kid’s mouth.”
And more recently Alexa’s teacher phoned home because "she wasn’t eating lunch during the day because she didn’t want me to have to pay for it because she knew I was struggling.”
Neither Alexa’s nor her son Dante’s fathers are in the picture right now nor do they help out financially.
Vierra is one of an estimated 30,000 single mothers in the state. As a group, single mothers have lower incomes and are less educated – more than 55 percent of New Hampshire’s single mothers have a high school diploma or less – and they are more likely to work a minimum-wage job.
These disparities can create sharp divisions between their children and the children of married couples.
According to the U.S. Census, married couples who are college educated and have two incomes earn a median income of $100,000, while the median income of a female-headed household with children has hovered around $28,000 a year for the last ten years.
Maureen Beauregard is president of Families in Transition. The nonprofit group helps struggling families find housing across New Hampshire, and a majority tend to be single moms.
“There used to be a time where you could get a job in manufacturing and you could get benefits, you can get retirement and you can earn a decent wage – those are gone. There aren’t many of those left. So people are really left to the service sector. And when you look at a single mom or parents in general, it’s really hard to work in the service sector, it’s off beat hours its more towards minimum wages,” Beauregard said.
And research shows that poverty and the stress associated with it has long-term consequences for children, says Irwin Garfinkel. He’s a professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. His research focuses on the economic insecurity of single mothers and their children.
“There’s cognitive development, there is behavior – the children, especially the boys are more likely to act out the girls are more likely to be withdrawn, to internalize.”
Garfinkel co-authored a national study called Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing that found that kids in single parent homes are more likely to score lower on standardized tests and do poorly in class. They also tend to be read to less, have less stable routines and are less likely to graduate high school.
Vierra’s family has moved more than five times from Manchester to Nashua to Laconia and back again Her daughter Alexa has transferred in and out of different elementary schools. And she says making time to read to Alexa after work was difficult once her son Dante was born.
“Especially now that I have the baby, it is almost even harder because I don’t have time to sit down with her and help her with her homework. And I don’t have time to do the things I like to do, like she likes reading out loud to me. OK, great, I am more than happy to sit down for a half hour an hour, whatever time I have. But you saw the little guy, he just runs around chittering, chattering, he never stops ever and it just becomes so hard.”
And she’s worried all this turmoil will affect her schoolwork.
“I’m deadly afraid that she is going to find out that she can drop out of school and that is going to become what she wants, what she thinks she wants to do. And I keep trying to stress to her how important it is to finish high school and how important it is to go to college, and I guess time will tell if it sinks in.”
(Hover over the map to see the percentage of families led by single mothers by N.H. County)
Kesha Hart of Nashua also knows the importance of an education. She’s 27 years old and a single mom to four-year-old J.J. Hart works as a cleaning maid at a local retirement home.
She says she knows she needs a college degree to earn more money but says she doesn’t have the time right now. “When I started working, I was going to school. I noticed me and my son, we didn’t get apart but I wasn’t giving him the attention that I was usually giving him. I felt guilty, but at the same time, I wanted to go to school, I wanted to have a job, I wanted to provide for my family, I was trying to do it all at once,” she said during her walk to work last week.
J.J.’s father lives in Lawrence. He sees J.J. once or twice a month but does not pay child support.
Every day Hart walks J.J. to school and then continues on to work– a total of two miles one way. A walk the pair has mastered by cutting through parking lots, bike paths and even some brief trails. They even walked through the winter, which Hart said got her a few looks.
“I felt like what is she doing outside with this young boy, is she crazy? But in the back of my head I am looking at her like I know what I am doing, that is my son, like I had no one else to help me. Like I said if I had the money I would take a taxi, but other than that, I had to go to work.”
Terry Smith, who directs the state’s division of family assistance, who primarily work with single mothers, says, "about 50 percent of our single moms have a barrier related to transportation. It is our biggest difficulty in helping families move along."
Another barrier – Smith says is finding affordable housing. With the average price of rent for a three person family in the state being $726 per month, many are forced to move around a lot, which Smith says has a toxic effect on a child’s social and emotional development.
Both Hart and Vierra were raised by single mothers, neither of whom had more than a high school diploma while they were growing up. That’s something Professor Irwin Garfinkel says is common.
“The likelihood if we don’t intervene and reduce poverty amongst these families that it is going to repeat in the next generation is high.”
Smith agrees, saying that despite the challenges, having single mothers in the workforce is key to uplifting their children.
“When a child grows up and sees mom get up every morning to go to a work-related appointment, the subliminal approval to stay home never develops. That breaks the generational cycle of poverty.”
To make it, Vierra and Hart lean heavily on their families. Vierra plans to move in with her mom until she can get back on her feet. Without her, Vierra says, she would be homeless.
“If I didn’t have my mom, how do people survive, any women in my position who didn’t have family or friends or someone who cared about them, what the hell do they do? I would have run out of diapers, he would have been running around here with a t-shirt wrapped around his waist.”
Advocates can agree that giving single mothers an opportunity to get a higher education or the necessary technical skills to qualify for higher paying jobs is the solution of getting these kids out of poverty -- but how to do that and the even bigger question who pays for it – is still up for debate.