Above and Beyond

Single mothers and the barriers to higher learning

by Lisa Comeau

March 2006

A university education is widely accepted as the “great equalizer,” the means by which class mobility can be achieved. But un-partnered mothers in academia—-including undergraduate and graduate students, contract academic staff, and, to a lesser extent, tenure-track and tenured faculty—-face structural barriers that put these women at a great disadvantage relative to their childless and partnered peers. Their long-term ability to provide for their children depends on their success in academia. Yet success in academia is made much harder for them because of the chronic lack of time and money and the continual stress and insecurity of life—-much of which is worsened by the restrictions imposed by systems of child care, housing and employment.

Poverty is not expected in such a privileged location as the university—-with the exception, perhaps, of the romanticized notion of “the poverty-stricken student.” This imaginary person eats a lot of Kraft Dinner and drives a “beater” car as a form of paying dues for the promised rewards of class mobility, privilege and power. But for single academic/student mothers, there is nothing romantic about the heavy financial, emotional and personal costs of raising a family alone with little or no income. For these women, the reality of poverty goes far beyond simply having limited disposable income.

The poverty of single mothers, rather, is experienced as a daily struggle to provide, for their children and themselves, such necessities as shelter and food.

Based on the experiences of friends, colleagues and students, as well as on my own experience as a single graduate student and contract sessional lecturer with children, I’ve cobbled together a composite example of the impossible balance that single student mothers must walk.

“J.” is a single mother of a toddler. She is registered in an undergraduate degree program and lives in low-income housing. In order to study, she requires childcare; the cost of a full-time space for her toddler is $425 per month. She is eligible for the full childcare subsidy if her gross income (including any child support she may receive) is $1600 per month or less. It does not forgive the cost of tuition or books. The full subsidy amount is $265 per month for a toddler space, leaving $160 that J. must pay out of pocket. If J.‘s income surpasses $1600 per month, she will qualify for only a partial subsidy.

The same goes for her rent: her subsidy is based on gross income, and rises or falls with her income. Utilities are extra.

After the standard deductions are taken from her monthly $1600, she pays her tuition and books, her $160 for childcare, and her rent and utilities, leaving her with as little as $500 to cover food, toiletries (including diapers, which are very expensive), transportation, clothing, miscellaneous expenses such as over-the-counter medications, home or car repairs, and so on.

To help make ends meet, J. decides to take a part-time job. As an undergraduate student, she finds a job in retail that pays minimum wage—-currently $7.55 per hour in Saskatchewan. She is offered a total of 15 hours per week in the evenings and on weekends. This adds $453 to her gross monthly income. However, it also means she has to pay a babysitter (approximately three to five dollars an hour, depending on the age of the babysitter), in addition to her daytime childcare expenses. She also has to pay the cost of transportation and/or parking while at work and, of course, the usual tax deductions at source. With the rise in her gross income, her childcare subsidy and her rent subsidy will decrease, meaning she’ll have to pay more for childcare and rent. In the end, J. will work sixty hours per month—-that’s sixty hours that she�s not devoting to her studies or her child. For this time and effort, J. may come up with an extra $200 to $250 to cover expenses.

The specifics of actual cases will vary, of course. But in every case, the fact of being a mother without a partner intensifies the competing demands of work and home responsibilities that all employed mothers deal with. For example, contract academics (people hired to teach a course on a semester-long contract) have no job security. When a course is cancelled with a month’s notice and there’s no partner whose income will cover the basic living expenses, what’s at stake for single mothers is their ability to provide shelter and food for themselves and their children.

At the level of graduate studies and tenure-track employment, research shows it takes two to three years longer for mothers to complete PhDs than for childless women or men with or without children. Single mothers in this situation enter the job market later in life, more likely carrying higher debt, and have a shorter career span before retirement in which to pay off the debt, raise children, and save for retirement—-and all on a single salary.

“It takes two to three years longer for mothers to complete PhDs than for childless women or men with or without children.”

STRUCTURAL BARRIERS DEMAND structural solutions. A national childcare program that delivers quality affordable childcare, for example, would be a tremendous start. Failing this, a childcare subsidy system based on net income rather than gross income, allowing for the costs of tuition and books, would be an improvement over the current situation. An increase to the Child Tax Benefit for single parents would put more money into the family budget. An increased proportion of student grants compared to loans would mean that upon graduation, parents would have a lighter debt load. This would be a tremendous benefit to single mothers. Within the academy itself, contract employees must be elevated from their second-class status. It must be recognized that many sessional workers earn their entire income from their teaching. These workers require greater job security and opportunities for longer term, better-paying academic positions. For tenure-track and tenured faculty, the academy must acknowledge the value of parenting so that academic mothers—-especially single mothers�are not disadvantaged in their bids for promotion.

The widely accepted notion that Canada is a meritocracy in which individuals succeed or fail on their own merits serves primarily to benefit those in positions of power and privilege, and to justify the poor treatment of those who are marginalized. A just and equitable society is one that recognizes that not all individuals have the same opportunities and access to material and social goods. Such a society works to create the “level playing field” that does not yet exist in Canada. Social, political and institutional changes are possible and necessary if the academy is to become truly accessible to single mothers.

Lisa Comeau holds a PhD in Education and works at the University of Regina. She is a single mother.

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