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They buy groceries with food stamps, live in public housing, and ask family and friends for cash.Doing this is far less lucrative than working, but mothers often found that the wages they could make barely offset the costs and hassle of transportation and childcare and the loss of Medicaid benefits, Seefeldt said.“Motherhood left them with no choice but to stay at home because of limited childcare options, limited job opportunities (especially jobs with a schedule that fit working mothers’ needs), or pressure from a partner who would not allow them to work outside the home,” Seefeldt and Sandstrom write.Indeed, things sometimes went awry when women depended on males in their life for help.

The help is necessary, especially since the jobs available to Davis, who has a GED, mostly pay minimum wage.“You’re not going to get far working at Burger King,” she told me.

Davis has been able to find minimum-wage work over the years at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, but the money is barely enough to feed five kids, pay the rent, and put gas in her car.

Research suggests that while two-parent families may be isolated islands of efficiency, single parents—even poor ones—rely on an ever-expanding social network to get by.

That social network has become even more important in the wake of welfare reform, when women who couldn’t find work could no longer count on cash assistance, and had to depend on their families and friends.“It was really piecing together help from family and friends, letting bills stay unpaid, and in some of the more dire situations, they doubled up with friends and other family members because housing is such a big cost,” said Kristin Seefeldt, a professor at the University of Michigan who recently released a study about the strategies used by low-income parents in the wake of welfare reform.

Pity the married working mom, who barely has time to do the dishes or go for a run at night, much less spend a nice evening playing Boggle with her husband and kids.

But if married working parents are struggling with time management these days, imagine the struggles of low-income single parents.But at the state jobs office, she told me, “they just want to send you out there, get any job, accept any job, they don’t care if you’re happy with the job.” Seefeldt and Sandstrom found that Davis’s struggles are typical of single mothers without more education and work experience: They face big barriers re-entering the workforce—dealing with childcare, transportation, and health insurance, all for paltry wages.Unfortunately, many mothers who do find work are only one crisis away from losing that job.One broken car, one sick kid, one court date can upend the fragile system they’d created for themselves.“The mantra in Michigan was a job, a better job, a career: Through work you would experience upward mobility,” Seefeldt told me.“There was never any evidence that was the case.”The lack of good, steady jobs makes it clear why single mothers rely on “packaging strategies,” as Seefeldt and Sandstrom term them.About one-fifth of all low-income single mothers were “disconnected” in 2008, up from 12 percent in 2004, and these mothers had a median annual income of 5, Seefeldt said.

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