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Studies: Living wage, health insurance vital for low-income single mothers

Mary Keegan Eamon and Chi-Fang Wu
Photo by
L. Brian Stauffer

Social work professors Mary Keegan Eamon, left, and Chi-Fang Wu have conducted two research studies on low-income single mothers that emphasize the need for jobs that pay living wages and provide universal health insurance.

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3/30/2011 | Sharita Forrest, Education/Social Work Editor | 217-244-1072;

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — While welfare-to-work programs mandate employment and push recipients into the labor market, many low-income single mothers have unstable and low-paying jobs that leave families vulnerable to hunger, inadequate housing, unmet health care needs and other hardships, according to recent studies by two researchers at the University of Illinois.

The studies’ findings emphasize the necessity of jobs that pay living wages and provide universal health insurance, the researchers say.

Mary Keegan Eamon and Chi-Fang Wu, professors in the School of Social Work at Illinois, co-wrote two studies of single-mother families – one study that examined patterns of involuntary unemployment/underemployment and another study that explored the effects of unemployment/underemployment on material hardships such as food insecurity, trouble paying bills and affording adequate housing.

Eamon and Wu focused their research on single mothers because about 24 percent of U.S. children live in single-mother families, which are five times more likely to be poor than married-couple families and to experience a variety of material hardships, regardless of employment status. In addition, the unemployment rate for single-mother families is double that for mothers who are married, and single mothers are much more vulnerable to being unemployed during economic downturns such as the recent recession. Single-mother families also comprise the majority of the welfare caseload in the U.S.

Eamon and Wu found that 45 percent of the single mothers studied either were unemployed, experienced involuntary job gaps or were underemployed, which was defined as involuntarily working part time or earning near-poverty wages.

Material hardship was a common experience among the families in the study. More than 41 percent of the single mothers reported having difficulty paying bills, 33 percent said they had problems affording sufficient or nutritious food, and 25 percent experienced housing problems such as pest infestations, leaking roofs or ceilings, and broken plumbing. About 38 percent of the households had members who were not covered by health insurance or had unmet health or dental care needs.

Compared with families whose mothers were adequately employed (defined as working full time or voluntarily working part time and earning above poverty wages), families whose mothers were unemployed, had involuntary jobs gaps or were underemployed had increased risks of experiencing bill-paying, health and housing hardships. Unemployment or involuntary job gaps were related to experiencing a food hardship.

Someone in the household owning the home decreased the risk of having a bill-paying, health or food hardship, while lower income-to-needs ratios increased the risk of having all but a housing hardship. The researchers speculated that home ownership might have captured available assets that the families could draw on when needed.

Education, work experience and home ownership reduced the risk of employment problems for single-mother families, the second study indicated. Factors such as work disability, other family income, receiving cash benefits and the state unemployment rate increased the risks of these mothers being unemployed or underemployed.

According to Wu, the relationship between cash benefits and employment problems might be the result of selection bias – that is, single mothers who received cash benefits were more likely to have other problems such as mental health issues.

The findings underscore the necessity of having adequate employment, Wu said.

“It’s very important to address some of the barriers that single moms face in making the transition from unemployment or underemployment to adequate employment, such as child care, housing assistance and mental health treatment,” she said.

Although extending federal unemployment benefits is a positive step toward helping low income mothers, additional assistance, such as educational grants and increasing the minimum wage, would help too, Eamon said. “The government could also provide job opportunities as they’ve sometimes done during periods of high unemployment to help stimulate the economy. Finding a way to provide more universal health care is an obvious answer to health hardships.”

The studies appear in recent issues of the journal Children and Youth Services Review. The data were derived from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2004 Survey of Income and Program Participation, which interviewed or surveyed single female heads of households every four months from February 2004-January 2008.

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