Changing families: Number of state's single mothers rises rapidly

Lauren Wood

Daily Journal

Troy Coleman has helped her 4-year-old son, Hunter, create a daily routine.

When Hunter’s alarm clock sounds, he goes to the bathroom, brushes his teeth, washes his face and gets dressed. Then he wakes up his mother and tells her it is time for his breakfast.

After eating, he quietly watches TV while his mom gets dressed and ready for work.

“I’ve got that dude trained,” said Coleman, 31, of Blue Springs.

In the evenings, Hunter takes his own shower and dresses himself in his pajamas.

“I don’t have to do any of that now,” Coleman said. “It is because I made him check into his own autonomy. And that frees me up now.”

Such is a necessity for the single mother. The work days are hectic enough for Coleman, who works for Mississippi Children’s Home Services. Most days are unpredictable, and it is common for her to get a sudden call to visit a client in the evening, keeping her from getting home until 8 or later.

Without a second parent to help her in raising Hunter, the job can get quite stressful. She wishes she had more time to do various educational activities with him to prepare him for entering kindergarten next year.

“Being a single mother is always going to be a little more difficult than the normal nuclear home,” Coleman said. “The financial burden falls totally onto you, especially if you don’t have any state assistance, and we try our best not to have any state assistance, but sometimes we must.

“The financial implication sets the tone for a lot of things. If you have to work more just to make ends meet, then that is decreasing your time with your children, and you don’t have that other parent to fall back on.”

Dramatic change

More and more parents in Mississippi are finding themselves in Coleman’s predicament.

The number of babies born to unmarried mothers has risen dramatically over the past 50 years.

In 1962, 14.4 percent of Mississippi babies were born to unmarried mothers, according to the National Vital Statistics Report. That total rose to 28 percent by 1980, 46 percent by 2000 and 54.4 percent in 2011.

Those numbers can contribute significantly to Mississippi’s poverty.

“I would look at it from an economic perspective,” said Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center. “What you are seeing more and more is that families need two earners to get by, and if you have only one earner in the household, it will be harder to generate all of the resources to cover all of your basic expenses.”

While Mississippi’s struggles with poverty are not new, this changing family structure can compound the challenges for the state and its residents.

“Mississippi has been an economically poor state for a very long time, certainly in my lifetime, in comparison to other states,” said state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo. “So that part hasn’t changed really. But what has changed are the family units that are dissolving and when that happens, everything goes downhill.”

Not all single mothers live in poverty, and many children from single-parent families thrive. But they do so against the odds.

Research indicates children of unmarried parents are less likely to graduate, more likely to end up in poverty and more likely to be teen parents. Yet the number continues to rise.

“I don’t know why that message is not getting through, except we have such a high number now of single-parent families that perhaps children are seeing that now as a norm and they are not afraid to perpetuate that again, to replicate that,” said Lewis Whitfield, senior vice president of the CREATE Foundation in Tupelo.

Forest Thigpen, director of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, blames a society that has been too tolerant of behaviors that have a negative impact, such as having children out of wedlock. He said churches, schools and parents need to do more to emphasize the importance of healthy relationships.

“When you have that dynamic of people who are choosing not to get married, it naturally creates more single-parent families, consciously, intentionally among adults,” he said. “I think our society has wanted to accommodate the breakdown of the family and what happens is you end up getting more of it. My shorthand version is what you accommodate, you can anticipate.”

Across races

The trend has occurred across all races, with it rising rapidly in the black community during the 1960s and 70s and in the white community more recently.

About a quarter of black babies born in Mississippi in 1962 had unmarried mothers, a total that rose to 52.3 percent by 1980, 70 percent by 1990 and is 81.1 percent today.

About 31.8 percent of white babies born in 2011 had unmarried mothers, compared to 1.5 percent in 1962. That percentage was 5.9 in 1980, 13.3 in 1990 and 21.7 in 2000. It rose as high as 33.7 in 2008.

“Family is a major problem in our society,” said the Rev. Chris Traylor, head of the Lee County NAACP. “We are thinking we can just go and perform in fornication acts and it is OK, and it is not.

“We need to understand why we need marriage and why family is important. Kids don’t understand. When a kid never hears the value of family, they don’t think it is important.”

Traylor said there are also disadvantages to children who grow up without the strong male perspective that a father can provide.

The trend disproportionately impacts less affluent families, exacerbating the gap between those who are wealthy and those who aren’t.

More than 76 percent of Mississippi babies born in households making at least 200 percent of the poverty line had married parents, according to the 2012 American Community Survey, one-year estimate.

On the flip side, for families living at or below the poverty line, 74.6 percent of babies were born to unmarried mothers. That means those children often put a strain on already limited finances.

Single parenthood is a “little motor pushing up the poverty rate,” Ron Haskins, an expert on children and families at the Brookings Institution, was quoted as saying in a February editorial in USA Today.

The question becomes, as more children come to schools from one-parent homes, what impact will that have on the school system.

“During the last 20 or 30 years, the family has changed, and as educators, we need to be supportive and change and adapt to things for our children,” said Tupelo Superintendent Gearl Loden.

It means schools must be thoughtful about the situations many families face, said  Ron Nurnberg, executive director of Teach for America – Mississippi. For instance, maybe they can create environments where students can stay late in the afternoons and do homework, he said. They can try to get grants or work with churches to provide various after-school enrichment programs, perhaps art, music or dance activities.

Perhaps they can provide a later bus route to bring students home in the evening after such activities. The New Albany School District and Shannon High School, for example, recently partnered on a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant that will provide after-school tutoring and late transportation.

“There are lots of decisions that would come of all of these realities,” Nurnberg said. “To me it ultimately one way or the other falls to the school’s personnel to solve because it lands on their doorstep.”

Some do well

Many children raised by one parent have done well in school and led prosperous lives.

Former Mississippi Superintendent Tom Burnham said when single mothers are already living in poverty, having a child does exacerbate that level of poverty. At the same time, he feels the issue’s impact can sometimes be overblown.

“We talk so much about single-parent families,” Burnham said. “My experience has been if the parents have an understanding and a knowledge of what to do and how to do it, it doesn’t make a difference if it is a single parent or two parents, they are doing what is right for their children. If they don’t have the knowledge, it doesn’t matter if one or two parents are there. It comes back to the education level of the primary care provider.”

But families in such situations often face challenges that others do not.

“For me, it comes down to money and time,” Coleman said. “If I had a husband, it would be more income and we could balance the time among each other.”

Theresha Triplett, who works with Coleman, also is a single mother. Her son, Jordan, is 10.

“With single mothers, we do get burned out,” said Triplett, 32, of Tupelo. “We are tired and when we get off work, it is hard to stay focused, especially with me, I am going to school to get my master’s online. Plus my work and plus my children’s school work.

“Then there is work around the house and trying keep things together. It is a lot. It is stressful. However, we as the parents already knew the game once we got into it. I knew what I was getting myself into, and I knew it was going to be hard.”

Interim State Superintendent of Education Lynn House, who succeeded Burnham, grew up in a single-parent home.

“For me, the issue is not single parent or dual parent,” House said. “The issue is what do the primary caregivers say, do and support with the children under their care....

“I had a grandparent and a parent who made sure we did what we needed to do. So it is what support are they getting that I think is the real issue.”

At the same time, House said, schools can assist such parents by serving as a brokerage point that connects them with available resources.

“What can we do as a state to encourage and inform what are the services available to you for assistance?” she said.

Also important, said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs at The Women’s Fund of Mississippi, is providing services like childcare that can help mothers increase their education and get higher-paying jobs. That’s why The Women’s Fund has a new program with the state’s community colleges where it provides scholarships for low-income students to attend and also funds services like childcare. The idea is to make higher education more accessible for young mothers.

“It is definitely a concern,” Bardwell said of the rising numbers of babies born to unmarried mothers. “You have to think about how to increase wealth and economic opportunity for that parent and that child.”

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