At the end of her freshman year, my 15-year-old daughter, Talia, came to me and said, “Mama, I don’t know how you did it.”
She proceeded to tell me about one of her ninth grade classes, where she’s learning about budgeting. All of the students in her class were assigned a job and salary, and they were also randomly assigned additional factors like kids/no kids, student loans/no student loans, etc. The students were able to make some choices, like “marrying” a classmate and where to live in the country, and from there they had to create a monthly budget.
Talia was assigned an income of $29,000 a year after taxes, and she and her best friend, Teresa, quickly decided to get married. But even sharing expenses with someone, she was only left with $50 a month. Her budget did not allow for entertainment, eating out or savings beyond that. She and her classmate were not assigned kids.
For the bulk of my life, I’ve made roughly $28,000 a year, with two kids, as a single parent. Talia knows this and was shocked that I have managed. Honestly, it is shocking for anyone to have to survive like that, and I know there are plenty of people who survive on even less.
I became a single parent when my kids were 1 and 4 years old, after escaping an abusive marriage. And although I have had long-term relationships over the course of my kids’ lives, I have not lived with another adult and none of these relationships became permanent.
Early in my kids’ lives, I lived in a small town where the cost of living was relatively low. Still, daycare for one of my children was the same cost as my rent. For two years, I paid double my rent for childcare.
Since my income was $28,000, we qualified for Medicaid and food stamps. We ate beans and rice and didn’t go on vacations, other than occasional camping trips nearby. When I was a child, my family had even less money than I did as an adult, so although it was hard to stretch my money, I knew it could be done.
“I wondered then, and still wonder, how many people try to survive the winter without heat, or go without food or medical care, because the safety nets that could help are too difficult to access.”
The hardest moments were the times I felt alone and wished for another adult to provide an income or even to simply help me care for my children when I was exhausted and just wished I could rest. As my kids got older and needed more, and as the cost of living continued to rise, I juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet. I returned to school with the hope that I could get a better-paying job. Still, I struggled, and relied on safety net programs to keep us afloat.
Talia told me another classmate, Danielle, was assigned five kids and an income of $24,000. Talia said she offered to marry Danielle, but Danielle wanted to see if she could possibly figure out a way to survive given the variables she was assigned. On paper, it looked like she would never be able to make it work, but she was determined to see if there truly was a way.
The teacher instructed the students with very low incomes that if they wanted to, they could research safety net programs that might help them and ease the stress on their budgets. Luckily, the students in Talia’s class don’t actually have to attempt to apply for these programs, but even the process of figuring out if they qualify can be daunting and can prevent access for people who need those services the most.
I’m not sure if it was intentional on the teacher’s part, but telling students to figure it out is a true-to-life model of how it works in the real world. Though there are organizations that assist people with safety net program applications, there simply aren’t enough resources to reach everyone who needs help.
I remembered all too well the year I applied for energy assistance and had to fill out stacks of paperwork and provide bank statements, check stubs, social security cards and birth certificates and so much more. Every time I thought I was done, there was more information I needed to provide. Filling out paperwork for energy assistance, on top of all the required reporting and documentation for Medicaid and EBT benefits, became a part-time job.
It was hard to understand, given all the detailed information each agency required, why the myth persists that these systems are easy to access or that people can dupe the systems. The process for qualifying for energy assistance was so daunting that when winter approached the next year, I decided to just add another part-time job to my passel of jobs. I was exhausted and barely managing to work the multiple jobs I already had, but the process of applying for energy assistance was more exhausting.
I wondered then, and still wonder, how many people try to survive the winter without heat, or go without food or medical care, because the safety nets that could help are too difficult to access.
I don’t know if Danielle, with the five children she was assigned, found safety net programs that would help her make ends meet in her classroom budget, but I told Talia to tell her friend that my kids and I are still alive after 14 years of single parenting — but only because I’m one of the lucky ones.
I don’t come from money, but I do have a family who would take me in if a health crisis or job loss prevented me from being able to pay my rent. Many, many other families don’t have family or friends who would be able to take them in.
And although I have a secure, better-paying job now, I am still hustling. I still need side gigs to keep myself afloat. I continue to hold out hope that I can stop hustling someday and let my body rest and recover.
Talia, meanwhile, is now very certain she will never have kids. Although her current goal is to become a surgeon, which comes with a far heftier income than I’ve ever earned, she now understands just how much money it takes to raise children and tells me that she wants to use her income to travel, donate and buy a house — something I still don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do. Other students in her class agree that they also don’t want kids and I don’t blame them.
The birth rate has declined in the U.S. every year since 2007, hitting a record low in 2020. (A slight increase in 2021 is considered a “blip” by some.) To me, and to Talia, one reason for that is clear.
Women are still the primary caregivers for children, and it is difficult for many women to advance in the workplace, get higher wages or to secure new jobs when they do not have access to reliable child care.
And even when kids no longer need to be in daycare, after-school care is often a necessity for parents who need to work past school hours to make ends meet. On top of child care, housing, food, medical care, gas and clothing costs — among the many other costs of raising children — are all rising exponentially. Even in two-income homes, stretching the budget to cover braces, healthy snacks, or new shoes every time they outgrow the old ones can be difficult — and for some families, impossible without safety nets.
I don’t regret the work I put in to provide for my kids, but I do regret missing out on so much time with them. They have had more opportunities than I had as a child, but I can’t help wondering what our lives could have been like together if I had been able to work one less job, or spend less time jumping through bureaucratic hoops so we could have heat or enough food on the table.
It’s hard to see how parenthood will ever look like an attractive option to a younger generation unless our government starts investing in programs to ensure that women and other caregivers have an opportunity to succeed.