Editor's note: This story was updated 5/27 to correct the share of newly unemployed personal care aides.
Christine Strong couldn’t take it anymore.
Four weeks of fruitless struggle with a state unemployment website. Bills piling up. Two small children who needed mothering and teaching, all in the confines of a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Strong’s bed broke. Her son’s bicycle broke, depriving him of his only recreation. Her aging mother, also living with Strong, kept getting confused and trying to walk off by herself without a mask.
“I had a lot of fear,” Strong said. The 46-year-old lost her job as a customer service representative and cleaner for a train service for cruise ship passengers. “Nothing is right,” she said. “Nothing is what it should be. You can’t plan. You don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
In a pandemic, single mothers must shoulder all the responsibilities at home — educating schoolchildren, caring for aging parents, cooking, cleaning and household management.
Now single moms have been hit particularly hard by the unemployment crisis, losing jobs at a far higher rate than other families with children, according to a Stateline analysis of census microdata provided by the University of Minnesota.
In April, the number of single mothers with jobs was 22% lower than it was a year ago, compared with a 9% employment decline for other families with children, according to the analysis.
The hit was even harder for low-wage single moms: Eighty-three percent working as waitresses lost their jobs by mid-April, along with 72% of those working as cleaners, 58% of cooks, a third of personal care aides and 14% of customer service representatives, according to the analysis.
Before the pandemic hit, women held 58% of service jobs. By mid-April, with travel halted and restaurants shuttered, nearly 5.7 million women had lost those jobs, compared with 3.2 million men.
Among all women, 17% have lost their jobs since the pandemic began, compared with 13% of men, according to the analysis.
That’s the opposite of what happened in the Great Recession, when male-dominated industries like manufacturing and construction took the biggest hits. Back then, between 2007 and 2009, 6 million men lost jobs, compared with 2.7 million women.
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“Job loss is due to the collapse of sectors where low-income women are concentrated, and single mothers are concentrated in low-wage jobs,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a program director at the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy.
Single mothers in some parts of the country have fared especially poorly. In New England, 28% of single mothers lost their jobs, and the percentage in some Southern and Western states was 27%. The decline was less severe in in the Dakotas, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri and Nebraska.
As states begin to lift restrictions on businesses and ease stay-at-home orders, single mothers face a new bind: Should they go back to work and risk exposure to the still-raging pandemic? Or get by on unemployment benefits that are just starting to materialize?
Many single mothers who will need child care to return to the workforce can’t find it because the pandemic has shut down so many providers, some permanently. The need will be especially acute if camps don’t open this summer and schools delay opening in the fall, said C. Nicole Mason, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy.
She said states should prepare now for the likely spike in demand.
“Women are put in this impossible position of having to choose between their job and taking care of their kids,” said Mason, who coauthored a study published this month on the struggle of mothers during the pandemic.
In Quitman County, Mississippi, Melissa Yamauchi quit her job as an insurance agent for a small firm when her employer barred her from working from home, a 56-mile commute away. Yamauchi has two young children, and she was afraid that she would catch the virus at work or her kids would get it at day care.
“I’ll stay home as long as I can keep the utilities on and food on the table,” said Yamauchi, with the help of $600 in temporary weekly stimulus payments for the unemployed. Congress is now debating whether to extend those benefits, which expire in July, into next year.
Yamauchi made about $370 in her job, and now receives less than $200 a week in unemployment benefits.
“If something happens to me, there’s nobody to raise them,” she added. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, is more important than being here for them. There are thousands out there just like me.”
Yamauchi’s children are in preschool, but they still have homework packets to complete, and she helps with her son’s speech therapy.
She used her food stamps to order a grocery delivery and her stimulus money to pay her property taxes, car registration and utility bills.
“I’m negotiating my water bill. Gas, I just let go,” she said. “Come winter, I’ll have to figure something out.”
Otherwise Yamauchi would get only $198 a week in basic unemployment from Mississippi.
Many states are trying to give parents more day care options, using money included in the federal CARES Act that President Donald Trump signed in March. Montana is using grants to keep child care providers afloat until reopening when they’re needed again, and New York is giving scholarships for child care to moderate-income parents with essential jobs.
But many parents are wary.
“Most parents, even if they’re essential workers, are not willing to send their kids to day care right now. That’s what I’m hearing statewide,” said Angela Burns, a supervisor at the Community Child Care Clearinghouse of Niagara, which helps distribute the scholarships in Niagara County, New York. Scholarships have gone to 88 families, but the county expected many more applicants and some day care centers have closed for lack of demand.
“Consumer behaviors haven’t necessarily aligned with states’ well-intentioned efforts,” said Dan Wuori, director of early learning for the Hunt Institute, a nonprofit that has tracked state child care programs related to coronavirus. “Many [states] have worked hard to bolster the availability of child care for essential staff, only to find the demand was considerably lower than expected.”
Some states have taken other actions that will help single-parent households.
Seventeen states have suspended work requirements for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the federal block grant program that replaced traditional welfare in the 1990s.
And Alabama, California, Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Washington and West Virginia are among the states planning extra payments, using state and federal money, to people who were receiving cash benefits before the pandemic or who are waiting for unemployment checks from jammed state systems.
North Carolina last week planned to send an extra $265 for each child in families that were receiving cash assistance before the pandemic, while West Virginia is providing a one-time payment, based on expenses, for families that have lost income but expect the job loss to be temporary.
“Sometimes what they really need is a little cash to get through waiting for these benefits they’re technically entitled to, but they may be waiting months to get them, and some states are stepping up with that,” said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.
States also should mandate paid leave and combat illegal discrimination against women who need time off to care for their children, said Sarah Brafman, a policy attorney at A Better Balance, a New York City-based group that advocates for family-friendly workplace policies.
New York state passed expanded leave requirements in March and San Francisco adjusted its paid leave laws temporarily for the pandemic, but a similar law in Dallas was stopped by a court injunction before it was scheduled to start in April.
As part of its coronavirus relief efforts, Congress has mandated two weeks of paid sick leave for workers who have the virus, are quarantined or must care for somebody who is ill. The measure also requires up to 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools or child care facilities are closed.
But it excludes at least half of private-sector workers, provides some exceptions for small employers and expires Dec. 31.
Strong says she’s reluctant to return to work and hasn’t heard whether the job will be available to her again. The work involved a lot of contact with tourists and cruise ship passengers, and that worries her.
Her 10-year-old daughter needs mom’s tech pointers to copy and paste on her school-provided laptop. And her 12-year-old son has gotten better marks in school with Strong’s one-on-one help. And if Strong went back to work, who would make sure her mother doesn’t leave the apartment without a mask, as she is constantly trying to do?
In early May, Strong started getting benefits — a total of about $3,200 a month including temporary stimulus payments. She was lucky, she said, because she was already in the system from a previous bout with unemployment.
“Strangely, some good things have come out of this,” Strong said. “Thank goodness the unemployment is there. And if I go out of the house, am I going to bring something back home that endangers them? My family’s safety is the most important thing.”
She also felt lucky because so many friends and neighbors responded to her pleas for help when she shared her financial issues on Facebook. She got a new mattress and bed frame, and someone took her son to a bicycle shop to get it repaired.
“People from high school were [direct messaging] me and just saying, ‘What do you need?’ she said. “It just gave me a lot of motivation to keep going.”