The fall election season was dominated by a common theme: The economy and its impact on the middle class. Whether it was a state or national campaign, the candidates went to great lengths to emphasize their support of, and proposed programs to help, this struggling segment of American society.
Candidates also struck a similar chord while courting women voters. Their votes, as many pundits and election analysts suggest, helped return President Obama to the oval office. Despite the refrains about the middle class and significant timely discussions about women's issues, these two important subjects hardly touched one another in the campaign. They should have, though, because in at least one key way they are inseparable.
The growth in the number of struggling single mothers who are moderately educated has contributed significantly to the diminution of the middle class. The Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, reports that middle-income households dropped from 61 to 51 percent between 1971-2011. During that same period, the proportion of middle-income households headed by married couples decreased dramatically from 74 to 55 percent. There are clearly other variables — including a major recession — that have impacted family incomes, but there is little doubt the growth of single-parent families headed by women with moderate educations have, according to Pew, been a contributing factor in the hollowing out America's middle class.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the former co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, has published articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic Monthly. She recently reported that in 1998, only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers were born outside of marriage. By the late 2000's, the figure had risen 44 percent. Additionally, Whitehead indicates that among the least educated single mothers, there has been a 21-percent increase in children born out of wedlock from 33 to 54 percent.
As evidence for some of her conclusions, Whitehead referred to last summer's New York Times article by Jason DeParle, which chronicled the story of two mothers. They worked together in a day care center in Ann Harbor, Mich. Both grew up in middle-class neighborhoods and were friends. One went to college, earned a degree, got married, and had two sons – in that order. The other became pregnant during her first year of college, left school, and stayed in a troubled relationship with her boyfriend. Together, they had three children and eventually broke up.
Today, these women live vastly different lives. The woman who completed college has a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, including a home in a nice suburb and a husband. Together, they have a five-figure income. The woman, who did not complete school, has fallen out of the middle class. She struggles on $25,000 a year, stretches her budget to make rent, which consumes more than half her paycheck, and relies on food stamps and bargain brands to feed her family. Both sets of children have different lives as well. The comfortable middle-class family's children play several sports, attend summer camps, and are active in youth organizations. The three children in the single-parent household have few, if any, extracurricular activities beyond church, and may play one sport a year.
Clearly, the elongated downturn in the economy has exacerbated the struggles of the shrinking middle class, but so have the sociological issues heaped upon society by moderately or uneducated single mothers. Helping these mothers climb into — or back into — the middle class is a challenging societal issue which Misericordia University and a few other colleges in the country have chosen to address.
The Misericordia University Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children Program provides free housing for single mothers and their families on campus. The novel program provides significant scholarships, subsidies for day care, and programmatic assistance to 10 mothers who live in two dedicated homes on the lower campus. The women and their children enjoy a healthy collegiate atmosphere and the children go to school in the region full time. The children are raised in homes with other similarly aged children in an environment that provides them with an extended family. The children learn to live with surrogate siblings — and since they're also raised on Misericordia's campus — they have almost 1,900 big brothers and sisters.
Students graduating from the Women with Children program at Misericordia obtain good jobs and enter or re-enter the middle class with a vengeance upon graduation. The only time they look back at their former lives is when they volunteer and support other women and their children in the community and at Misericordia who also strive to become part of the American dream.
Michael A. MacDowell is president of Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa. For more information about the Ruth Matthews Bourger Women with Children program, please contact Vicki Austin, director of the program, at [email protected], or log on to www.misericordia.edu/wwc.