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Single Parenthood: A Major Factor In Poverty

Joe Mahoney
The iNews Network

Angel Castro’s days teeter between determination and desperation. She is 28, impoverished, scarred from a chaotic childhood and adolescence, raising two young children alone.

She lives in a subsidized apartment in Englewood, scrambles to arrange child care that she can afford, and races to catch the bus to a part-time job that paid her $452 for one recent month.

Credit I-News

To know the circumstances of Castro’s life is to understand something of the odds against her. Still, as she attends to her dark-haired, bright-eyed Aaron, 3, and Alexis, 17 months, she speaks with a voice that musters hope.

“I try to be the best mom I can,” she says. “I want to give my kids a chance at a healthy lifestyle. I want them to go to school, get good grades, be able to go to college and have a good future.”


In analyzing the widening gaps between minority groups and whites in Colorado on key measures of social progress, there are harsh realities behind the numbers. One is that among homes with children living in poverty, 68 percent are headed by just one parent, typically the mother.

Single parenthood is a bigger indicator of poverty than race, according to six decades of U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by I-News Network. Combined as it often is with curtailed educational and employment opportunities, the rise of the single-parent family is a major factor in the widening disparities between blacks, Latinos and white state residents since the decades surrounding the civil rights movement.

The I-News analysis covered family income, poverty rates, high school and college graduation, and home ownership as reported by the Census Bureau from 1960 to 2010. Health data and justice reports were also examined.


While the rate of single parenthood has increased among all races, its surge has been particularly dramatic among blacks. In Colorado, more than 50 percent of black households with young children are headed by a single parent compared to 25 percent of white households. Among Latino households in the state with young children, 35 percent are headed by a single parent, according to the I-News analysis.

Those figures dovetail with the growing trend of births to single women. Nationally, 29 percent of white babies are born to unwed mothers, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while 53 percent of Hispanic babies and 73 percent of black babies are born to single mothers.

“When you talk with some of the older experienced folks of the civil rights movement, the one thing that we continue to come back to is the challenged family structure – African-Americans and Latinos -- in the sense that back in the 60s the family structure was much more solid,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. “There were more men in the house. There were less single women trying to raise children on their own.

“The family structure has disintegrated in a sense. That challenge is real.”

While many single parents raise thriving, productive children, the growing trend of fatherless homes has enormous implications for future generations. Children raised in female-headed homes in Colorado are four times more likely to live in poverty than those from married-couple homes, according to the I-News analysis. Other studies show they are less likely to go to college or even graduate high school.

‘‘We’ve got a problem in the community, and every indicator that you can attribute to fatherless or broken homes, every negative thing – high dropout rates, incarceration, premature death related to violence—all those things, there’s a connection with kids being born to fractured families,” said Christelyn D. Karazin, founder of the “No Wedding, No Womb!” online initiative that seeks to address the out-of-wedlock birthrate among African Americans.

Regina Huerter, co-founder of the Gang Rescue And Support Project in Denver, which primarily serves Hispanic youths, theorized that the widening divide between the races stems from a “mutually reinforcing” convergence of births to unwed mothers, growing minority male incarceration rates and the demise of minority neighborhoods.


All of these things weakened the fabric of family life and changed the norms that defined communities just five decades ago, said Huerter. At some point, she said, it became socially acceptable for unmarried women to have babies.

“When did that happen? What was the date? My mother would have killed me if I’d gotten pregnant,” said Huerter, who is 52.

Huerter, Hancock and others linked the absence of fathers in the home, in part, to the rising number of black and Latino men in prisons, often for drug crimes.

In 2010, about one in every 20 black men were incarcerated in Colorado state prisons compared to one out of every 50 Latino men and one of every 150 white men, according to an I-News analysis of government figures.

The state’s black and Latino incarceration rates are higher than the national averages, where disparities also exist, according to an analysis of Bureau of Justice reports. Nationally, one of every 33 black men and one of every 83 Latino men was behind bars in 2010. Colorado’s rate for white men was equivalent to the national figure, one in 150.

“The combination of the war on crack and mandatory sentencing saw a huge sweep of black males into prison and further degeneration of the black family,” said Theo Wilson, a district director for BarberShop Talk, a mentorship organization for men.

The Rev. Leon Kelly, who has worked with thousands of Denver’s at-risk inner city kids, believes intergenerational abandonment lies at the heart of the single-parenthood phenomenon.

“When you have some of these heads of household that are women, sometimes they feel like, ‘This is the norm. This is what I was raised with,’” Kelly said. “They’re so used to people coming in and out of their life. With their kids, their babies, it’s something that nobody can take away. Their kids are going to be there.”

Kelly said 80 percent of the youths he counsels live in female-headed households.

"A lot of them never had men on a consistent basis in the home to show them what they should be doing as far as being the head of the household,” Kelly said. “A lot of them join gangs because at least they’re able to find a sense of identity, a sense of acceptance. Now he’s not just a fatherless child."

Credit Joe Mahoney / The iNews Network
The iNews Network
Angel Castro, 28, a single mother with two children unloads groceries at their Englewood, Colo. apartment. She said she feeds the family on about $500 a month


Angel Castro’s 3-year-old son, Aaron, has already lived in 10 different shelters, hotel rooms and apartments. By the time Alexis was born in August of 2011, Castro had landed her Englewood apartment through the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, which pays all but $54 of her monthly rent.

With no financial support from the fathers of her children, Castro scrapes money together any way she can. She makes burritos to sell on city buses. She raids dumpsters for metal and aluminum, cleans houses, and has evicted deadbeat renters, trained dogs and sold her plasma.

Castro’s mother endured struggles of her own. She was just 16 when she gave birth to Angel, the first of her six children by three different men. Castro says her father has eight children by five different women.

Throughout her childhood, Castro lived in countless foster homes and group homes. By the time she was 12, she was living with her 22-year-old boyfriend at his house in Aurora. As a teenager, she was involved in an assault that landed her in prison.

As for the men who fathered her children, she says, “I overlooked a lot of red flags. I was searching for that bond with both of my children’s fathers, and having that family I always wanted.”


Both conservatives and liberals cite the impact of welfare programs on families as a major factor in the growing divide between the races, though for different reasons. Some said cutbacks in government support disproportionately hurt minorities, while others said the system encourages dependence on government and keeps minorities and the poor from improving their future.

Former U.S. Senator Hank Brown said the welfare system rewards behavior that leads to poverty.

“Most states operate in a way so that the more children you have out of wedlock, the more money you get,” Brown said. “If you chart it, I know this is painful to hear, but if you look at the statistics on births to unmarried women, it correlates directly with the start” of welfare payments. “Then, of course, once you start the cycle, it’s hard to get off.”

But former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb said welfare reform that passed under President Clinton catapulted “a lot of people who were receiving government assistance off into a kind of a never-never land, which also then increased the number of disadvantaged that previously had been receiving assistance.”

This Gordian knot can be untangled, according to Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, the Washington, D.C. think tank. Their 2009 book called “Creating an Opportunity Society” advocates increased educational opportunities for children from pre-school on, encouraging and supporting work among adults, and reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births while increasing the number of children raised by their married parents.

In an interview with I-News, Sawhill said the huge increase in single parenthood factors into the disparities between the races, particularly between blacks and whites.

“It’s one of the reasons why that gap has not narrowed, especially since the 1970s,” she said.

Sawhill and Haskins have also used Census data and simple modeling to simulate what would happen to poverty rates under different assumptions about work, marriage, education and family size among the poor. They found that the poverty rate could be reduced by about 70 percent if the poor completed high school, married, had no more than two children and worked fulltime.

The researchers also ran a model in which they doubled the amount of welfare benefits received by poor families.

“The result is revealing,” they wrote. “Even a doubling of current benefit levels does less to reduce poverty than any of the simulations of behavior change. … Work, marriage, education, and family size are all more powerful determinants of the incidence of poverty than the amount of cash assistance received from the government.”

Sawhill told I-News that inequities will only end through a combination of personal responsibility and good government policy, including assistance for those who work. “We think it isn’t one or the other,” she said. “It’s both.”


When Denver’s mayor talks about the struggles of single parents, he does so through the prism of his own childhood.

The youngest of 10 children, Hancock was raised by a single mother after the divorce of his parents when he was 6. His father had a drinking problem and popped in and out of his life. His mother kept her brood together, hopscotching from rundown hotel rooms to apartments that sometimes lacked heat and electricity.

One of Hancock’s sisters was murdered by her boyfriend; a brother died of AIDS. One sibling was an alcoholic, another addicted to drugs. Two brothers served time in prison. But somehow, Hancock graduated high school and college, became the youngest CEO of an Urban League chapter anywhere in the country, and was elected mayor of the nation’s 26th largest city.

How did he rise above?

“My answer is really pretty simple,” he said. “I found faith at a very early age and exercised it a great deal growing up. Two, I had the benefit of being the youngest of 10 where I watched a lot of the trials and tribulations of older siblings, learning the pitfalls to avoid.

“Thirdly, I had a great deal of adults who entered my life, who gave me a sense of encouragement that I could be successful if I focused, who also kept me directed.”

When prodded, he offered this advice to disadvantaged children:

“Your circumstances today don’t have to define where you go or who you become tomorrow. My story is not unlike many stories of other successful people whether in business or in politics. The difference between those who are able to ascend to their dream of whatever they want to be in life, to those who don’t, really is about the decisions we make and really the desire and decision to focus on getting there. The reality is they control their destiny.”


For now, Angel Castro’s days revolve around trying to figure out how to feed and clothe Aaron and Alexis. She threw a small party a few months ago for Alexis’s first birthday and was relieved when she got gifts of diapers and wipes rather than toys.

She used to count herself lucky to have a neighbor who watched her children for $20 a week so that she could work. But Castro had to give up her position after her sitter got a better paying job.

Castro is frustrated by the endless rules and paperwork of a welfare system she believes is “built to set you up for failure.” She said she has only four hours per day of government-supported child care, which means she can’t work fulltime.

She sometimes thinks the only solution is to put Aaron and Alexis in foster care and hope for a better fate for them than she experienced.

“I’ve had a whole chaotic life, feeling hurt and angry with my whole situation,” Castro said. “I don’t want my kids feeling like I felt growing up.”


For more information: inewsnetwork.org. Contact Ann Carnahan Espinola at aespinola@inewsnetwork.org. I-News intern Leia Larsen contributed to this report, which was made possible, in part, by grants from The Colorado Health Foundation and the French-American Foundation.

I-News is the public service journalism arm of Rocky Mountain PBS and works in collaboration with news media throughout Colorado.
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