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Common Dreams

Mothering Between A Rock and Prison

(Photo: Alfredo Caliz / Panos)

This Mother’s Day, Shanesha Taylor, a 25-year old homeless and unemployed mother, will be fighting for her freedom and her children for committing the unspeakable crime: trying to feed her family. Without childcare or family support, Shanesha left her children, ages two and six-months, in a parked car while she went for a job interview. In that 45-minute window, a passerby reported her unsupervised children to the Scottsdale, Arizona police who promptly arrested her on felony charges for child abuse.

Outraged by the authorities’ harsh treatment, 45,000 strangers nationwide signed a petition urging charges be dropped, and raised over $100,000 to cover Shanesha’s attorney’s fees. “It’s just baffling that she somehow is considered a victim,” says Jerry Cobb from Maricopa County Attorney's Office. What’s baffling is the authorities’ ignorance of structural circumstances that create a poverty trap for poor single mothers.

Millions of single mothers today face the daunting task of raising children with $17,568. That’s the federal poverty rate for a single parent with two children. Today there are ten million mothers facing this grim reality, including the nearly 587,000 single mothers with children that worked full-time, year-round in 2012.

In the wealthiest country in the world, single mothers like Shanesha and their children make up the majority of the poor. Forty percent of single moms and their children live in poverty, double the rate of single families headed by men. Worst off are black and Latina mothers—half of their families live in poverty. According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 56.1 percent of all poor children live in families headed by women.

If convicted, Shanesha faces up to seven years in prison. Her children will likely be placed in foster care. By prosecuting Shanesha, officials hope to admonish struggling mothers from taking such risks. But unless policymakers change their structural circumstances, most mothers will continue to do everything in their power to escape destitution.

What Shanesha and millions of working poor mothers need is a social safety net, such as food stamps, income support, affordable housing and subsidized childcare. What has ensued instead is a shift away from government responsibility for the well-being of its most vulnerable towards blaming the individual. President Ronald Reagan first used the racist myth of the “welfare queen” to justify eliminating critical programs to support low-income women. Then President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, further enshrined these demeaning stereotypes into public policy with welfare reform.


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Most recently conservatives have revived George W. Bush’ compassionate conservatism by advocating that single mothers marry as a poverty reduction strategy. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said the most effective way to lift families out of poverty isn’t a government program. “It’s called marriage.” Yet studies show that Europeans have the same family compositions as Americans; the key difference in the well being of a single mothers’ family is a social welfare system. “High poverty rates for children in single mother families is a policy choice,” writes Matt Bruenig of Demos. “In the US, we decide in favor of it. In the Nordic social democracies, they decide against it.”

For single mothers barely able to pay for the basics such as rent and groceries, childcare seems far out of reach since in most cases, the cost exceeds what they can earn. Even those able to obtain it with childcare vouchers face extremely limited childcare options.

Gloria Malone, a black teen mother, received childcare vouchers after enduring an after-school parenting program that she describes as “patronizing and condescending.” Gloria tried to use the vouchers, only to learn that most daycares didn’t accept them. She finally found a daycare that she wasn’t comfortable with that took them. Within weeks, her daughter came home with bruises and with bottles and clothes that were not hers. “These are the type of facilities that are available to poor single working mothers.”

Instead of investing in social welfare, governments are spending millions on surveillance and a criminal justice system that further entraps poor mothers. In Mississippi, the state gave a $14.7 million contract to Xerox to develop a security system requiring mothers using daycare vouchers to scan their fingerprints when they come to get their children. Parents that don’t use vouchers are not subject to the same demeaning experience.

In Harpersville, Alabama, Dana Burdette, a 37-year old white mother of three children spent 113 days in jail for not being able to pay the fine for driving without a license. Even after serving time, Dana is still paying off thousands of dollars in debt she incurred in probation fines and per-diem jailing fees. Burdette still takes the risk to drive with a suspended license. “I just had to take the risks,” she told The Nation. “But if you’re a poor, minimum-wage working mother, you have to do what you have to do to make sure your kids—and my dad—is took care of. I don’t have anyone else to depend on.”

Women are the fastest-growing prison population. More than one million women—the majority whom are mothers—are in prison, jail, probation or parole. Taxpayers pay to incarcerate poor mothers like Shanesha and Dana, but our society pays in other ways. Children growing up without parents experience greater physical and mental problems and are more likely than those from intact families to get in trouble with the law. 

Eveline Shen

Eveline Shen is executive director of Forward Together, a multi-racial organization that works with community leaders and organizations to transform culture and policy to catalyze social change in Oakland, California.

Zachary Norris

Zachary Norris is the executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and a former director of our Books Not Bars campaign. Prior to rejoining the organization, Zachary founded and co-directed Justice for Families, a national alliance of family-driven organizations working to end our nation’s youth incarceration epidemic.

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