September 1984 // Volume 22 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA2

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The Low-Income Single Parent

Problems, support systems, and educational interests of this client group are presented, along with a discussion of opportunities for Extension.

Nancy Wells Gladow
Department of Child and Family Studies
Washington State University - Pullman

Margaret P. Ray
Associate Professor
Department of Child and Family Studies
Washington State University - Pullman

More people are becoming aware of the increasing number of single-parent families in the U.S. and their disproportionate likelihood of living in poverty. Extension is beginning to consider what can be done to help meet the needs of the low-income single parent. Our recent study of primarily rural low-income single parents suggests a gap exists in support for these families that Extension seems ideal to fill.

Washington Study

Our 1983 Washington study examined the problems and support systems of 64 single parents living in Whitman County, Washington -those with an income below 125% of the nationally established poverty level. This 1983 study involved interviewing single parents in their homes and asking questions about some selected problems they have, their relationships with friends and relatives, community support, agency services, and interest in taking various educational courses. The sample was obtained from the Whitman County Regional Planning Council (WCRPC), the county agency administering the programs of rent subsidy, energy assistance, weatherization, and community services provided through the Community Services State Block Grant.

The sample was primarily rural female single parents who were divorced or separated and had sole legal custody of their children. Two of the parents were widowed and eight unmarried. Seventy-three percent had been single parents over two years. The subjects ranged between 20 and 55 years of age with a median category of 30-34 years. The median educational level was graduation from high school, with a range between eighth grade and graduate school. There was a fairly even split between the number of single parents who were employed, not employed, or students.

Single-Parent Problems

Analysis of the interviews revealed that out of 20 specified potential problems, the most pervasive problems of these low-income single parents were, in order:

  1. Handling family finances.
  2. Medicalidental care.
  3. Transportation.
  4. Meeting the children's emotional needs.
  5. Handling or controlling the children.
  6. Household tasks such as repairs and moving.

Notice that these highest rated problems or difficulties generally deal with the parent's responsibilities to the family rather than the individual's personal needs. It wasn't that these single parents had all their personal needs met, because 86% said they could somewhat or strongly relate to the statement, "I feel isolated from other people-like I'm the only one who really cares about what's going on in my life and with my children." Apparently these parents downplayed their own needs and put the needs of their family first.

Although the researchers found the vast majority to be deeply committed to their families and role as parents, many seemed so caught up in survival that they didn't have or take the time and energy to recognize and meet their own personal needs as individuals.

The results showed that interaction with friends, perceived emotional support from friends, and perceived community support were strongly related to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and happiness in the single parents. Those who had more close friends, more frequent and satisfying conversations with friends about personal matters and problems, and greater perceived emotional support from friends and the community felt less lonely, less isolated, and happier. In turn, the single parents who felt the least lonely and isolated and the happiest were also those who had the fewest frequent problems.

The relationship between the well-being of the single parent as an individual and the parent's ability to cope with problems seems only common sense to professionals who work with families. The support single parents receive from others is bound to affect their ability to cope with life's challenges. Therefore, the tendency of the low-income single parents in this study to downplay or perhaps not recognize their own needs is cause for concern. These single parents may need help to realize that taking time to meet some of their own needs can also be of benefit to their children.

Course Interest

The participants were asked about their interest in taking 11 specific classes, if there were no cost involved and child care were provided. The interviewer didn't specify who d would be teaching the classes or where they would be hel I trying only to assess the interest these parents had in increasing their knowledge and skills in certain areas. The relative interest in these 11 courses, from most to least, was:

  1. How to manage money to stretch it further.
  2. Skills that would increase employability.
  3. How to fix things around the house.
  4. How to cope with stress and pressure.
  5. How to discipline children effectively.
  6. Building friendships and self-confidence.
  7. How to fix fast and nutritious meals.
  8. Assertiveness.
  9. Sewing.
  10. How to handle anger.
  11. Job finding skills.

Note that the courses in which the greatest interest was shown correspond with the areas that caused the most problems for these single parents.

Gap in Support

Although some resources are already available to low-income single parents, noticeable gaps exist. Public assistance or employment helps meet critical basic financial needs, yet isn't likely to provide the personal sense of support necessary to improve the emotional well-being of the single parent. Also, negative effects associated with public assistance may exist.1 Although some single parents can develop support systems with friends and relatives, many others don't have these resources or may have moved away from their family and friends.2

Single-parent support groups are sometimes suggested to help provide support and understanding for single parents. 3 Yet members of Parents Without Partners, the most widespread organization specifically for single parents, are primarily middle-income and middle-class. 4 In the present study, only one person was currently involved in any group for singles or single parents, although one-third were close enough to attend one of these groups if they had a car.

The lack of involvement of low-income single parents in these groups may be due to a number of factors, including transportation problems, financial considerations of child care or activity expenses when going to meetings, or not feeling comfortable in a primarily middle-class setting. Indeed, transportation and finances were common problems for these single parents. However, the comments about single-parent groups these subjects volunteered most often dealt with the negative associations they have about these groups. One woman said, "I've always thought those types of groups were for when you got really desperate." Several parents said they'd attended one social event of a single-parent organization and felt so uncomfortable with the dating emphasis of the group that they wouldn't return. Other women commented that they didn't want to put themselves in a position to be "looked over," and would prefer a group that wasn't oriented to dating.

Community college classes geared to single parents have been suggested as a possible support group for this population.5 Such classes may avoid the negative associations of single-parent organizations. However, financial problems of paying tuition or child care, transportation, or hesitancy to enroll in a formal college class might inhibit low-income single parents from becoming involved in such a class. Also, these courses aren't available in many communities.

Extension's Role

Extension and the,family living Extension agent in the county office are i4'ideal position to fill some of the gaps in support for low-income single parents. Programs offered through Extension would have several advantages over those through community colleges or single-parent groups. Unlike most community college courses, Extension programs can be offered free and may not generate the fear possibly associated with a college-sponsored class. Extension programs also wouldn't have the negative stereotypes associated with formal single-parents' groups or organizations.

The background of the family living Extension agent provides him/her with skills in the areas that seem to be causing low-income single parents the most problems-the topics in which the subjects showed the most interest in taking classes. Another important skill agents have is the ability to generate trust and support among a group. The more interaction and emotional support single parents receive from those around them, the less isolated, less lonely, and happier they seem to be.

Building support among a group of low-income single parents may be a challenge at first, as many of the subjects in the present research commented on the gossipy or cliquish nature of their community. Yet, Extension agents are among the most skilled of family professionals when it comes to group process.

Also, transportation is a real problem for most low-income single parents. About 16% of our sample had no car and another 30% said their car was unreliable. The expense of gas was a commonly mentioned problem. However, Extension agents can offer programs in the community in which they're needed. In the majority of small towns in our rural county, if a program were offered in a local community building, the single parents in that community would be close enough to walk or at least to get to the location with an unreliable car and with little gas money involved.

In our information explosion society, the importance of human contact and support is sometimes forgotten. With low-income single parents, the personal dimension available through face-to-face classes is critical. Although other methods used by Extension (such as correspondence courses, publications, and newsletters) may also benefit low-income single parents, these methods involving reading would probably have much greater meaning and inspire more motivation after a trusting relationship has developed with the agent and other single parents in the community.

Thus, the family living Extension agent can attract lowincome single parents into classes by holding the programs locally, teaching topics of particular relevance and interest, and hopefully offering or arranging for child care, if possible.

The agent can help the participants become a supportive group that in turn provides a source of support and new friends that may enrich the single parent's life past the duration of the class. Skills taught in the course would directly apply to the life of the single parent, thereby improving the quality of life for the entire single-parent family. Other information resources available through Extension may then be used by these parents to enhance their own lives and those of their children.

... a link exists between the support the single parent feels and the overall well-being of the family. Extension has the structure and expertise to provide this link and enhance the quality of life for the low-income single parent.


A recent Washington study on the problems and support systems of low-income single parents suggests a gap exists in support for these families that Extension seems ideal to fill. Through locally taught classes, agents could provide expertise in the areas that create the most problem for single parents, while at the same time facilitating feelings of group trust and supportiveness. Building support systems among the single parents may provide them with the greatest benefit-the feeling they have friends in their local community who understand their situation and to whom they can turn for friendship and support.

This research project shows a link exists between the support the single parent feels and the overall well-being of the family. Extension has the structure and expertise to provide this link and enhance the quality of life for the low-income single parent.


  1. Sally Bould, "Female-Headed Families: Personal Fate Control and the Provider Role," Journal of Marriage and the Family, LX I X (M ay, 1977), 333-49.
  2. C. Jauch, "The One-Parent Family," Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, VI (Summer, 1977), 30-32.
  3. Sally VanZandt and Gay Gallup, "The Single Parent at Midlife," Family Perspective, X111 (Spring, 1979),101-107.
  4. Patricia N. Clayton, "Meeting the Needs of the Single Parent Family," Family Coordinator, LIX (October, 1971), 327-36.
  5. Blaine R. Porter and Randy S. Chatelain, "Family Life Education for Single Parent Families," Family Relations, LX (October, 1981), 517-25.