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Single Parents Face Uphill Battle

Resources: Tough budget choices often pit the welfare of children against paying the rent or keeping the heat on.

June 11, 1996|LUCILLE RENWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Every week brings the same scenario for Rosalina and her two children. They cry for pizza, she says no. It has nothing to do with limiting the amount of junk food or cholesterol in their diets. Rosalina simply can't afford it.

Melva Atayde's part-time job brings in barely enough for the potatoes, bread, milk and raisins she recently conjured into a meal for her kids, 4 and 2 1/2.

At first glance, these two women have little in common. Rosalina fled Guatemala in search of a better life in the United States. Atayde is a graduate of Cal State Northridge.

But they share a common struggle: They are single parents living in poverty, part of the growing legion of mostly women who are constantly trying to make the numbers add up for their families.

In the San Fernando Valley, most poor children live in families headed by single mothers who are divorced, separated, were never married or whose husbands left home or died. In 1990, 15.8% of children under 18 in the Valley lived below the poverty level, most of them residing with single parents, according to 1990 census figures.

As the number of single-parent homes increases, some service providers believe the number of impoverished children is bound to rise as well.

"We're not seeing a boom of jobs and we're not seeing a decline in the cost of child care, and these are two things that need to happen to keep these parents' heads above water," said Sandy Zonas, director of subsidized programs for the Valley's Child Care Resource Center.

With the dearth of resource centers available, existing centers are bombarded by an influx of single parents seeking help.

"We're basically seeing about 2,000-plus women and children a year," said Cynthia Caughey, executive director of the Women's Care Cottage in North Hollywood. Over the past decade, the number of women seeking help has risen dramatically.

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In the country as a whole, single mothers and their children now make up more than half of the nation's poor families and are one of America's fastest-growing demographic groups. In the United States, 60% of all poor families with children are headed by women.

Family income for single mothers and their kids averages $13,000 a year, less than half the income for the average single woman without children. A woman with a minimum-wage job earns $8,800 a year, $3,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Almost half of the single mothers in the United States don't have a job. Of those who are divorced and are owed child support, half don't get the full amount.

"These parents aren't living day to day, they're living a day behind," Zonas said.

Single parents endure multiple struggles--both material and emotional--that they must confront daily. They have to make tough budget choices that often pit the welfare of their children against paying the rent or keeping the heat on. And, if they can afford child care, they often wind up settling for substandard care.

Day to day, Rosalina struggles to survive on poverty-level wages that have forced her and her children at times to live in dilapidated, cramped, crime-ridden housing.

"Every day I talk to both of my children and I tell them maybe we don't have everything in the world that we want, but we have a great love for each other and God in our hearts," the 41-year-old Van Nuys resident said.

Rosalina would give only her first name, concerned that she could lose her job as a housekeeper or that her children might be teased at school if any of their friends knew how poor they are.

She rarely complains about her financial problems, stressing that she doesn't receive welfare. But the numbers speak clearly. She earns $700 a month cleaning the home of a family that has employed her for the past 17 years. Her rent is $450 a month for a one-bedroom apartment she shares with her two young children, ages 5 and 9, and her 23-year-old daughter who just moved back from Washington, D.C.

The four of them sleep in a king-size bed a friend donated. She pays more than $100 for utilities and bus fare, leaving a little more than $100 for food.

She never buys meat. Instead she makes do with vegetables, fruit, cereal and juices often purchased from a warehouse produce market where some of the food is beginning to spoil.

Atayde was 18 when she had her first child and was kicked out of her parents' home in San Jose. She moved to Northridge to be closer to her son's father, who wanted little to do with the child.

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For the first year after her son was born, she worked seven days a week as a receptionist at a real estate agency and a mortgage company to cover rent, child care and expenses. At the same time, Atayde attended night school at CSUN and scraped by on money from financial aid and work study in addition to her jobs.

"I remember taking my son to school with me and having him be disruptive and getting kicked out of class," Atayde, now 23, recalled. "I left school in tears on those days."

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