Forty-four-year-old Cassandra Jackson recently returned home to Chicago from Memphis, Tenn., in hopes of upgrading her quality of life and beating the odds faced by so many single African-American mothers: finding a job.
Jackson, who had worked as a secretary for the state of Tennessee, was barely making ends meet in Memphis. That's why she packed up her two daughters and went to live with her mother in her childhood home in Englewood, a gritty neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, known to be one of the most dangerous in the nation.
She moved because she needed child care and she wanted her daughters — Emerald, 11, and Jewelia, 10 — to be in the safest hands possible: her mother's. She needed peace of mind while enduring the stress of pounding the pavement looking for administrative-support jobs.
She said she has refused to shack up with a man for the sake of paying the bills, as she's seen so many other women do, not just for moral reasons but also out of concern for the safety of her girls. She has heard too many stories about women's boyfriends abusing and molesting their children. Jackson, a practicing Christian, attends a Baptist church.
"In Memphis, the neighborhood was changing for the worse," Jackson told The Root. "I know Englewood's reputation, but I grew up here. My family is here, and I can get on my feet in time. Meanwhile, I know my girls are in good hands if I need to run out to a job interview or go grocery shopping. And I know who's in the house and that my girls are safe."
Jackson is lucky because most single black mothers — who have been hit hardest by the current recession — do not have a support system that mirrors the ones of days gone by. The safety net was made up of grandmothers, known as Big Mama and Madea — no, not Tyler Perry's rendition, but strong black women, who are eulogized in the poetry of artists such as Nikki Giovanni and Mari Evans. They are cut from the same cloth as Rosa Parks, Mary McLeod Bethune and Ida B. Wells. Yes, you know of them.
But women exemplified by these models have fallen by the wayside because of changing demographics and evolving times that have forced them to go back to work themselves, rendering them unable to stay at home to tend to their grandchildren. Or they have died off because of unchecked health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. In other cases, these women may be in need of care themselves because they are sick or unemployed.
"I think it's a myth that we don't still have strong black women anchoring our communities," says Tricia B. Bent-Goodley, Ph.D., a professor at Howard University School of Social Work. Still, she says, many single mothers do not have the strong caregiving safety net of yesteryear. Today Big Mama may be your friend's grandmother, an auntie, a woman in the community or a woman at a social service center.
Add an unyielding recession into the mix, and it's no wonder that African-American single mothers are being crushed financially, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and a recent report from New York University's Women of Color Policy Network, "At Rope's End" (pdf).
The NYU report shows that African-American and Latina single mothers have a median wealth of zero, compared with white women, who have a median wealth of $6,000. Last year 40 percent of African-American female heads of households with children lived in poverty, compared with 23 percent of white women, the report says.
The unvarnished numbers for joblessness among African-American single women are just as alarming. In October, the most recent numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate among African-American single women was 20.3 percent, compared with 17.7 percent for Hispanics and 11.3 percent for whites.
The numbers have skyrocketed from October 2008, when the unemployment rate was 12.8 percent for African-American single women, 10.7 percent for Hispanics and 7.1 percent for whites. They're even up slightly from last October, when the unemployment rate was 19.1 percent for African-American single women, 13.7 percent for Hispanics and 10.7 for whites.
The recession has been especially tough on single mothers because they are the only income providers for their families and their traditional safety nets have been shredded, including by limits on unemployment and welfare benefits, says Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women's Law Center, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.
"It's hard for single moms because a disproportionate number have lower education levels than the general population," Entmacher says. "As jobs become scarce, there is more competition for few available jobs, and college grads are taking those. The highest unemployment rate is among people with few job skills, and that population includes poor men and women. Black women and black men have suffered incredible job losses during this recession."
Jackson, who attended some college, agrees that it's been tough. The challenges she faces are steep. She's been looking for work for more than six months and hasn't found any. She's surviving off public assistance. She does not receive child support because her ex is also unemployed. He stops by her mother's house every now and then and gives each of the girls $1, maybe $3, she says.
"You learn who you can depend on and who you can't," she says. "You learn to find advocates. Back in Memphis, another single mother and I used to alternate buying a case of chicken wings each month and split them equally. That way, at least we had chicken. This recession is making us single mothers learn to be thrifty and proactive. If we get nothing else from it, at least we get that."
Lynette Holloway is a Chicago-based writer. She is a former New York Times reporter and associate editor for Ebony magazine.