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'Incredibly Scary': Single Moms Fear Falling Through Holes In Pandemic Safety Net

Oct 26, 2020
Originally published on October 27, 2020 4:39 pm

Nellie Riether, a single mom from Ringwood, N.J., faces a stark choice: raid her retirement savings or uproot her kids from home and move in with her sister.

"To be honest, it's mortifying and embarrassing at 46 years old to say I'm going to have to move in with my sister," she says. "Emotionally, it's a bit of a failure."

Riether has been out of work since April, when she was furloughed from her job in office building design. She can't pay the rent much longer, and she's worried about her kids, who are 13 and 15.

The state jobless benefits she receives don't even cover her rent, let alone her car payment, insurance and food. And she's frustrated that Congress couldn't figure out a compromise months ago to send more help in the middle of a national emergency.

"This is beyond politics — this is people's lives," says Riether. "This is my life. This is my family's life. We need a stimulus package."

A lot of people need help in the pandemic, but especially single mothers. There are approximately 13.6 million single parents in the U.S., raising 22.4 million children. Eighty percent of those single parents are moms. Women have lost more jobs than men during the recession, and others are quitting their jobs in frustration from the demands of child care. However, quitting is just not an option for most single parents.

For Riether, not having a partner to share the financial burden is just part of her predicament. There's no partner to talk to. And it's difficult to bring up with friends what she's going through.

"I mean, I don't want to burden other people with, 'Well, I'm going to lose my home and be homeless,' " Riether says.

"I might make a joke about it, but it is very heavy and it weighs a lot. The future is uncertain and it's incredibly scary. It's just incredibly scary," she says.

Ellen Griffin is a single mom with two kids in Birmingham, Ala.
Tamika Moore for NPR

It's a common fear for single moms who've lost their jobs and are watching their savings dwindle away — moms like Deborah, who got laid off in May from her public relations job with an entertainment company in Los Angeles. (She doesn't want her last name used because she doesn't want to hurt her chances of finding work.) Deborah says she has been looking hard for a job but nothing has come through. In the meantime, the rent will be due soon, and she's not sure how she'll pay it. She hasn't talked about that with her daughter.

"I mean, she's 7. I want her to make sure she keeps her innocence," Deborah says. "I want her to just think the world is all rainbows."

But for single moms relying on unemployment money and unable to find a job, the world is anything but rainbows right now. It has been nearly three months since an extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits expired. State benefits often aren't enough to cover rent and other bills. And economists say many people are depleting their savings.

For single moms who are working, many feel fortunate to have a job, but between juggling remote school and housework, there's never enough time. "I'm always kind of half-awake," says Ellen Griffin, with an exhausted-sounding laugh. "Last night I think it was 2 before I fell asleep, and then [I was] up at 6."

Griffin is a single mom in Birmingham, Ala., where she works at a public library. She has two kids, 10 and 13. Before she gets to work at 8 a.m., she needs to get her older son set up for remote school at her father's house. He's 90 years old.

Ellen Griffin sits with her oldest son outside her home.
Tamika Moore for NPR

Her younger son, Drake, needs more attention because of his autism. She shuttles him to school every morning. Then there's speech therapy in another location. At the library, more than half the staff has been furloughed, so she's doing extra work — running books in bags out for curbside pickup, while wearing a mask.

"It's like Tetris," she says, "trying to fix all the pieces so everything is covered."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Working till midnight, homeschooling your kids, cleaning, cooking - the life of a single parent during the pandemic is a marathon. NPR's Chris Arnold reports on how single moms in particular are struggling whether they've lost their job or are still working.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: If you think your average day is tougher than usual right now, meet Ellen Griffin.

ELLEN GRIFFIN: Last night, I think it was 2 before I fell asleep and, you know, then up at 6. Like I said, I'm always kind of half-awake.

ARNOLD: Griffin's a single mom in Birmingham, Ala. She's got two sons, 11 and 13. She works at the public library.

GRIFFIN: I have to be at work at 8.

ARNOLD: So she gets her older son set up for remote school at her dad's house. He's 90 years old.

GRIFFIN: We've set up a school room in my old bedroom at my dad's house.

ARNOLD: Her younger son Drake needs more attention because of his autism, so he's going to in-person school part of each day. And then there's speech therapy in another location.

GRIFFIN: It's like Tetris trying to fix all the pieces so everything is covered.

ARNOLD: Millions of single parents are playing this real-life game of Tetris right now. In September, four times as many women as men dropped out of the workforce, many of them to deal with family life and home schooling. But for single working moms...

GRIFFIN: It's, oh, my God, I hope I don't lose my job.

ARNOLD: But a lot of single moms have lost their jobs, and many are now running out of money.

DEBORAH: I've really had to watch every dollar, and I've had to just pay the bare minimum on my credit card bills.

ARNOLD: Back in May, Deborah lost her job in public relations at an entertainment company in Los Angeles, and she's not sure how she's going to be able to pay rent next month. She hasn't talked to her daughter about that.

DEBORAH: I mean, she's 7. I want her to make sure she keeps her innocence. So I want her to just think the world is all rainbows and, you know, whatever. But for me, I'm feeling a bit nervous.

ARNOLD: A lot of people collecting unemployment are getting increasingly desperate. It's been nearly three months since an extra $600 a week in federal benefits expired, and economists say many people on unemployment have used up whatever small savings that they had. Deborah doesn't want to use her last name because she doesn't want to do anything that could hurt her chances of finding another job. She's been looking hard, but she says nothing's coming through.

DEBORAH: Some lady was like, oh, we're just collecting resumes.

ARNOLD: Across the country in Ringwood, N.J., Nelly Riether can't pay rent for much longer, either. Her kids are 13 and 15, and she's facing a choice - start spending her retirement savings or uproot her family from the house that they're renting and move in with her sister.

NELLY RIETHER: When I first got divorced, I lost my home and my kids, and I ended up living with my sister for a little while. So I know it is possible. To be honest with you, it's mortifying and embarrassing at 46 years old to say, I'm going to have to move in with my sister. Emotionally, it's a bit of a failure.

ARNOLD: Riether has been furloughed from her job in office building design since April, and she says she's worked hard all her life from starting when she was 13 at her dad's pizza shop. She's never collected unemployment before, but the state benefits alone don't even cover her rent, let alone her car payment, insurance, food. And she's frustrated that Congress couldn't figure out a compromise a month ago to send more help in the middle of a national emergency.

RIETHER: This is beyond politics. This is people's lives. This is my life. This is my family's life. We need a stimulus package.

ARNOLD: One thing that's been hard for Riether, too - as a single mom, she doesn't have a partner not only to share the financial burden but just to talk to. And as far as her friends...

RIETHER: When you asked, I started kind of feeling, like, a little bit of a welling up because it isn't something that I talk about with my friends, really. I mean, I don't want to burden other people with, well, I'm going to lose my home and be homeless. I might make a joke about it, but it is very heavy, and it weighs a lot. The future is uncertain, and it's incredibly scary. It's just incredibly scary.

ARNOLD: It's a scary time for a lot of people but especially for single moms like Riether who are going it alone without enough help to get by.

Chris Arnold, NPR News.

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