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Report: Single moms in Whatcom County more likely to be poor

The local chapter of the League of Women Voters hopes to start a discussion about an economic problem in Whatcom County that is found everywhere else in the state: Single women, especially single mothers, are statistically much poorer than the general population.

League of Women Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County released a report on Sunday, Feb. 15, that outlines the obstacles and opportunities for the more than 25,000 women in the county who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. (According to the latest federal figures, this would include a single woman who has two children and makes $40,180 a year or less.)

The goal of the study, “Women’s Economic Security in Whatcom County,” was to lay out the problem, not propose solutions. But interviews conducted during the study with social-service agencies and some of their female clients generated ideas about how to improve existing services. These included evening hours for courts and social services, less red tape at the courthouse and at agencies, and more effort to spread the word about services.

The study gave a lot of attention to programs that help low-income children, particularly in the public schools. The League chose this emphasis out of concern for the long term.

Financial security is strongly linked to education. Educational attainment is more difficult for children who, for example, spent their first three years with an inadequate diet. The League’s report says these children are more likely to have mental-health problems and get into trouble.

“Hopefully the community can help to move past some of this and have fewer and fewer people be economically challenged,” said Kay Ingram, chairwoman of the study’s committee.

The League will host a public meeting on the study Saturday, Feb. 21, to start a community conversation that could lead to solutions, Ingram said. As for the problem, it can be found in statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The 2009-13 American Community Survey, which provides finer-grained detail of populations by combining five years of data, shows the poverty rate for families headed by single women in Whatcom County was 37 percent, compared to 10 percent for all families in the county. These are families at or below the federal poverty level, not the 200 percent figure cited by the League’s study.

Statistics draw stark distinctions between those above and below the poverty line. In Whatcom County, Hispanic women who are heads of households are poorer than their white counterparts (56 percent below poverty to 33 percent). Single mothers are at significantly higher risk of being in poverty than married couples with children (47 percent to 7 percent). Single women with bachelor’s degrees have no more risk of being poor than the population at large.

Finding a silver bullet to solve this income gap is practically impossible because so much of a person’s economic fate arises from the combination of her environment growing up and the decisions she makes as a young adult, according to the League’s study and others.

Andrew Cherlin, in his 2014 book “Labor’s Love Lost,” noted the profound gap in economic stability between those who are and are not college educated.

“By the time they are in their late twenties, three-fourths of young mothers who have no bachelor’s degree have had at least one child outside of marriage,” Cherlin writes. He said those without a college degree often have a series of domestic partners, creating complex, unstable family dynamics “that are not good for children.”

The complexity of the problem prompted Ingram of the League to call for as broad a community discussion as possible. And the conversation doesn’t need to be about money — how much more governments should spend on social services, for example.

“I don’t really want to point that kind of finger or anything,” Ingram said. “What’s important to happen is for governments — the county and city councils — and the institutions and agencies, and the people in the community, and the women involved in this situation to try to have some dialogue.”

Attend the meeting

What: A discussion of the League of Women Voters’ study “Living on the Brink: Women’s Economic Security in Whatcom County.”

When: 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Feb. 21 (doors open at 9:30 a.m.; social-service agencies will be available to answer questions).

Where: Building G at Bellingham Technical College, 3028 Lindbergh Ave.

More info: lwvbellinghamwhatcom.org/calendar.html. Includes directions.

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