Every night in America, 11 million single mothers tuck their children into bed with empty stomachs, a cruel and sobering reminder of the harsh reality that is food insecurity. More than 34 million Americans, including 9 million children, are food insecure, but single mothers and their families are particularly vulnerable.
Despite progress in reducing poverty rates and improving access to social safety net programs, single mothers continue to face disproportionately high levels of food insecurity compared to other household types. The challenges of juggling work, child care, and household responsibilities while living on a tight budget make it difficult for single mothers to provide consistent and nutritious meals for their families.
1 in 4 households with children headed by single mothers experienced food insecurity in 2021, compared to 1 in 10 married-couple households with children. This disparity is even more pronounced among Black and Hispanic single mothers, who are nearly twice as likely to experience food insecurity as their White counterparts.
In this context, understanding the root causes of food insecurity among single mothers is crucial for developing effective policies and interventions to address this critical issue.
Single Mother Households Are Disproportionately Food Insecure
In 2022, The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that “single-mother households were more than three times as likely to experience food insecurity among children than married-couple households with children.”
Single-mother households experience higher rates of poverty than other types of households, which contributes to their increased risk of food insecurity. In 2020, the poverty rate for households headed by single mothers was 23%, nearly five times greater than for married couple households, for whom the poverty rate is 4.8%.
Single mothers who are employed still experience high rates of food insecurity. American women are twice as likely, compared to men, to work in low-wage, part-time jobs with few to no benefits, a majority of those women being single mothers.
Challenges Faced by Single-Mother Households
Single mothers face unique challenges when it comes to accessing adequate and nutritious food for their families. For one, they often have lower incomes compared to married couples with children, making it more difficult to afford healthy food.
Single Mother Guide observes that “among children living with mother only, 38.1% lived in poverty. In contrast, only 7.5% of children in two-parent families were counted as poor.” This disparity is only exacerbated by the gender pay gap, which leaves women, especially single mothers, earning less than their male counterparts.
Furthermore, single mothers often face barriers to employment, such as a lack of affordable childcare or limited access to job training programs. This can make it difficult for them to earn enough money to put food on the table. Nearly one in five single mothers was unemployed in 2020, compared to one in ten married mothers.
Single mothers are forced to take on primary childcare responsibilities, and they often experience hiring discrimination because of their position as the sole caretaker of their children. An article in the Journal of Social Issues revealed that when researchers added the phrase “has a two-year-old-child” to a potential candidate’s bio, evaluators rated the person “less competent than an otherwise equal [candidate] not presented as having a child.”
In 2023, the gender pay gap stands at 82 cents for women of all races, for every $1 earned by men of all races. For single mothers, it’s 71 cents. Single mothers that are Black (64 cents) or Latina/Hispanic (56 cents) face even greater disparity.
Effects of Hunger on Children
In addition to the obvious physical effects of hunger and malnutrition, food insecurity can also have long-term effects on children's development and well-being.
For example, children who experience food insecurity are more likely to have developmental delays, behavioral problems, and chronic illnesses. They may also struggle academically and have lower graduation rates. They are also more likely to experience food insecurity as adults and may have lower income and educational attainment. The effects of food insecurity on children can also have long-term consequences, like a higher likelihood of developing chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, later in life.
One of the most immediate impacts of food insecurity on children is malnutrition. Children who do not have access to enough food may not receive the nutrients necessary for healthy growth and development. Malnutrition can lead to stunted growth, delayed cognitive development, and a weakened immune system, making children more susceptible to illness and disease. A report by Health Affairs found that “food-insecure children are at least twice as likely to report being in fair or poor health and at least 1.4 times more likely to have asthma, compared to food-secure children.”
Food insecurity can also impact children's mental and emotional health. Children who experience food insecurity may feel anxious, stressed, or ashamed about their lack of access to food. This can lead to behavioral issues, such as aggression or withdrawal, as well as depression and anxiety. Hunger can also make it difficult for children to concentrate in class, leading to poor academic performance and decreased educational attainment.
In a recent study conducted by Feeding America, single mothers reported higher levels of stress and anxiety related to food insecurity compared to other households. The study found that 64% of single mothers reported that they had to choose between paying for food and paying for other basic necessities, such as rent or healthcare. This can create a cycle of poverty that is difficult to break, as families may need to prioritize immediate needs over long-term investments, such as education or savings.
Food Insecurity for BIPOC Single Mothers
Since single-mother households are more likely to be headed by women of color, they are likely overrepresented in the group of households experiencing food insecurity. In 2020, the food insecurity rate for Black households with children was 29.5%, for Hispanic households with children it was 24.2%; whereas, for white households with children, it was only 9.1%. These disparities in food insecurity rates are also reflected in the higher rates of poverty and unemployment that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) households with children experience.
BIPOC households are more affected by hunger because they are more likely to live in poverty. According to the US Census Bureau, 22.2% of Black households and 18.9% of Hispanic households lived in poverty in 2020, compared to 7.3% of non-Hispanic White households. Poverty limits access to healthy and nutritious food, as well as resources such as transportation, housing, and healthcare.
BIPOC households are also more likely to be led by a single woman than white households. Specifically, Black and American Indian kids are most likely to live in a single-parent families (64% of Black children and 52% of American Indian children fit this demographic). In 2021, there were about 4.27 million Black families in the United States headed by single mothers, out of 15 million Blackblack families in total. Single mothers often have lower incomes and fewer resources to provide for their families, making it harder to access healthy food and maintain food security.
Additionally, systemic racism plays a significant role in food insecurity among BIPOC households. Racism contributes to the persistent wealth gap between white households and BIPOC households, limiting their access to financial resources and opportunities. Racism also impacts the availability and quality of food in BIPOC communities, as well as the number of grocery stores and healthy food options available.
Finally, BIPOC households are more likely to experience other social determinants of health that contribute to food insecurity, such as inadequate housing, limited access to healthcare, and exposure to environmental toxins.
COVID-19 Impact on Food Insecurity
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the issue of food insecurity among single mothers and their families. In April 2020, the unemployment rate for women reached 15.5%, the highest rate since 1948. Single mothers were more likely to experience job loss and financial hardship during the pandemic, which has made it even harder for them to afford food. The report also found that single mothers were less likely to receive government aid, such as stimulus checks or unemployment benefits.
The loss of income from the COVID shutdown has resulted in increased food insecurity and has made it challenging for women to take care of their children and return to work. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) passed in March 2021 provides aid for women's childcare needs, and there is a growing focus on gender and racial equality in the job market. Although women have been able to regain their footing in the workforce post-COVID, over 13.5 million women experienced job loss, which is 18% of the entire female population in the United States.
According to Feeding America, as of October 2020, 44% of households with children who were food insecure during the pandemic were headed by single women, compared to 29% of households headed by single men. The pandemic has also led to disruptions in the food supply chain and increased food prices, making it harder for families to access healthy and nutritious food.
It is clear that urgent action is needed to address the issue of food insecurity among single mothers and their families. This includes both short-term solutions, such as expanding access to food assistance programs like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), and long-term solutions, like addressing the root causes of poverty and inequality. However, more needs to be done to address the underlying issues that contribute to food insecurity, such as the gender pay gap and lack of affordable childcare.
As a society, we must also recognize the important role that single mothers play in our communities and economy. We must support policies and programs that help single mothers access education and job training, as well as affordable childcare and healthcare. This includes advocating for paid family leave and flexible work schedules, which can help single mothers balance work and family responsibilities.
Additionally, we must strengthen our federal nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program and SNAP, to protect low-income individuals and families from hunger and poverty. We must all advocate for and support these crucial programs.
You can also donate to Move For Hunger to help hungry families in need. Every $35 donated helps feed a family of four for a week. If you’d like to contribute to the solution, donate today!