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To Beat Odds, Poor Single Moms Need Wide Safety Net

Single mothers have an especially hard time getting out of poverty. Households headed by single mothers are four times as likely to be poor as are families headed by married couples.

Still, many of these women are trying to get ahead. Some know instinctively what the studies show: Children who grow up in poor families are far more likely to become poor adults.

These mothers often rely on a network of support — not just from food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare, or other government programs people usually think of. They also depend on charities, churches, family, friends, personal drive, ambition and even luck to stay afloat.

Against The Odds

Take the case of 29-year-old Jennifer Stepp, who lives in Reading, Pa. Like 14 million other people in the U.S. who live in families headed by single mothers, she's poor. And she faces incredible odds.

Stepp has three children by three different fathers. The father of her eldest child, 10-year-old Isaiah, is serving 30 years in federal prison for armed robbery.

"He's met my son one time, when he was a baby. And he decided that he didn't want him," she says.

Stepp's middle child, 8-year-old Shyanne, usually sees her father every other weekend. But the father of her younger son is also in prison. Stepp says he's been behind bars for selling cocaine since she was pregnant. He has never met 1-year-old Makai.

"He writes letters back and forth, and he wants to be a part of his son's life," she says. "I'm just waiting for him to get out and get his life together."

Getting Back On Track

Stepp says she was the victim of youthful optimism. She kept thinking that the next guy had to be better than the last, and that the relationships would last.

Now, that's all behind her, and she's wiser. She says she's trying to get her life on track. These days, Stepp works full time at the Second Street Learning Center in Reading. The center provides round-the-clock day care for working poor families.

But she's kind of stuck. She has worked there for almost eight years, and she still earns less than $9 an hour. "Being a head assistant, I can't go any further without some kind of degree," she says.

That's why two nights a week, after work, Stepp and several colleagues pile into her battered blue station wagon and drive to a nearby school. They're trying to earn associate degrees in early childhood education from Harcum College.

If their grades are good, their employer — a nonprofit called Opportunity House — will help with tuition. If they graduate, they can get a raise.

A Wide Net Of Support

Here's where Stepp's safety net really comes into play. While she's at night school, her three children are back at the Second Street Learning Center, where she gets subsidized day care. While they're eating grilled cheese sandwiches and carrots, she's enjoying chicken and cheese stromboli at school.

The dinner is provided to the night students to make things a little easier for them, says Isamac Figueroa, director of community engagement with I-LEAD, the nonprofit that runs the program. She says the typical student is a single mother with either a full- or part-time job.

"For us to believe that [a single, working mother is] going to be able to get home from work, hurry and scurry and get some dinner ready for the kids, and come to school is just not a reality for our students," Figueroa says.

She explains that the goal is to make college possible for those who might not otherwise have a shot. That's especially important in Reading. The census reported last year that the city had the highest poverty rate of any U.S. city with a population over 65,000.

Stepp hopes to get her degree in two years and then go for her bachelor's degree. Then she'd like to teach and maybe open a day care center of her own someday.

'For Them, Not For Me'

Class gets out around 9 p.m. Stepp rubs her eyes, trying not to yawn. It's been a long day. She was up at 6:30 a.m. to get the kids to school and day care. Then she worked all day.

And it's not over yet. She has to drive back to the day care center to pick up her children.

[Single mothers] try hard, and sometimes it's just not hard enough. You need that help.

Stepp says she keeps a picture of all three kids on the cover of her school binder to remind herself when she's tired and overwhelmed why she's doing this. She says she has to remind the kids, too, why their lives are so hectic.

"I explain to them that I'm doing it for them, not for me," she says, "so later on down the road, we can have a comfortable life and a nice house. I try to make it look pretty for them — nice house with a dog and a front yard for [them] to play in."

Breaking The Stereotype

Now, Stepp and her kids live in a three-bedroom apartment in the city. She doesn't let her kids play in city parks, because she's worried about crime and broken glass. Her employer, Opportunity House, pays half the rent. It's one of many things her employer does to help her out.

Stepp says her parents also struggled, and they didn't really show her how to apply for a job or to college. She had to figure it out herself. Still, her safety net is pretty broad. Her mother stops by many nights to help put the kids to bed. Stepp also gets food stamps and medical aid for the kids.

After her kids go to sleep, around 10:30 p.m., Stepp has a chance to reflect. She says it bothers her that single mothers sometimes get a bad name, that people think they just have babies and collect welfare. She says she briefly received welfare benefits a few years ago, but not now.

"I'm the opposite, and I know [there are] some other single mothers out there that are also the opposite," she says. "They try hard, and sometimes it's just not hard enough. You need that help."

She knows, without it, the odds are definitely stacked against her.

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Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.