What it Takes to Help Young Women Break Out of Cyclical Poverty

Posted on August 23, 2018 by Dave Schools

Somehow, she made it.

Every week she came through the door with two big bags over her shoulders and a small child on her hip.

As a young single mother, she worked two part-time minimum wage retail jobs while studying to become a beauty therapist and paying for childcare for her two-year-old daughter. If she received the average child support from her former spouse, it would’ve been ~$3,950 per year (US Census, 2013) but there’s a good chance she wasn’t receiving anything at all. Studies show that more than 45% of custodial single parents don’t receive the full child support payment they’re due each month.

The dark rings under her eyes from lack of sleep were barely visible underneath the layers and layers of eye make up.

She was strong in spite of struggling. She did a good job of not showing it. Her last Facebook post was a shared image with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd. I have all that I need,” followed closely by another that said, “Being a mother is and will always be my biggest blessing.”

This young woman is one of 11,667,000 single mother families (2017) in the US. If you’re reading this, statistics show you probably have a friend who is a single mother. In 2016, 23% of the US population were single mother households. That’s nearly 1 in 4 people.

Of course, lone motherhood is not the only cause of female poverty — sexual violence, gender wage gaps, employment exclusion, lack of domestic support, and other serious conditions can lead to female poverty. However, as the Journal of Human Development and Capabilities points out, pregnancy and child-rearing present the highest risk and most prevalent cases of women living in poverty and extreme poverty (and will be a central theme to this article).

Without a financial safety net to catch her, a woman who becomes a single mother may suddenly find herself on a slippery decline, spiraling downward, descending rapidly into cyclical poverty. It’s extremely difficult for a mother to work when she’s taking care of one or more dependent, hungry children. As such, 35.6% of single mothers are legally considered impoverished and of the individuals who use food stamps in the US, 59% are single mothers.

While the direct causes of single motherhood remain deeply embedded in the complexities of human relationships, family culture, and mental health, its link to cyclical poverty is something worth exploring and addressing.

As the child’s sole caretaker, the single mother’s world reduces to a survival mindset, and keeping up with “norms” that others (both men and women) don’t think twice about doing, such as finishing education, advancing in personal development, and earning higher levels of professional achievement, becomes near impossible.

Rather, women in poverty are forced to seek state assistance and subsidization, often turning to government welfare. But government welfare is not without its hoops and holes.

One Forbes writer points out how welfare is a much-needed short-term help, but lays the groundwork for long-term poverty. Essentially, recipients get stuck. He writes:

“The first failure of government welfare programs is to help with current consumption while placing almost no emphasis on job training or anything else that might allow today’s poor to become self-sufficient in the future.”

To stand in this gap and help break at-risk teens, young mothers, and their families out of the bonds of cyclical poverty, organizations are specializing in providing housing, development services, and support for women in poverty and single mothers.

One of these organizations is the Nevada Youth Empowerment Project (NYEP), a community-based youth service provider founded in 2007 in Reno.

NYEP (pronounced ‘ENN-YEP’) provides housing and programming for homeless, aged-out, unprepared, parent-less youth, usually females and some young mothers ages 18-24.

Staffed by five people and dozens of volunteers, the nonprofit is designed to produce the outcomes that form the foundation of self-sufficiency: high school graduation, employment, college education, independent housing, good citizenry, and the avoidance of welfare.

Monica DuPea, Executive Director of NYEP, describes NYEP as a “housing-first approach.”

“We establish residential programming that teaches youth how to be successful adults,” she said.

“They don’t see you for two days and say, ‘Okay, we’ve helped you for two days, you’re done,’” said Liliana, an NYEP graduate who went on to study neuroscience at UNR. “They put so much work into you that when you’re done you’re actually going to be contributing versus taking.”

NYEP currently has the capacity for 15 youths in its Community Living Program (CLP).

Seven days a week for 9-18 months, the CLP young adults participate in activities including:

  • Housekeeping (daily chores)
  • Laundry Volunteering (group and individual)
  • Shopping
  • Meal Planning & Cooking
  • Financial Awareness
  • Time Management (calendar)
  • Mixed Martial Arts
  • Problem Solving
  • Typing School
  • Work Art Expression

The program’s success is measured by three criteria.

Participants exit from NYEP when they:

  1. Achieve high school proficiencies (graduate)
  2. Gain a living wage income (training, employment, and savings). Save $2000.
  3. Secure independent housing (safe, suitable, and affordable)

How the program guides its participants to success involves a creative management philosophy, called Token Incentives.

“At the CLP, we operate on a points, or ‘token’ system,” said DuPea. “To some, a points system at a young adult independent living program may sound odd or like it is meant for kids, but we believe it helps us teach older youth the realities of adult life — namely, we do what we have to do so that we can do what we want to do. Our residents earn points for all of the positive and productive things they do while at NYEP and then cash them in for privileges and items such as bus passes, phone payments, gift cards, special items, outings, and extended curfews.”

The program’s fastidious adherence to accountability is its secret sauce for instilling stability, maturity, and life skills in young mothers. For example, residents are permitted to grocery shop by themselves every Saturday with a weekly budget of $187 and are held to strict expectations and outcomes by the staff.

NYEP’s results tend to be more qualitative than quantitative — a scan of the organization’s website reveals not so much numbers, but names — story after story of transformed lives and renewed hope. One hundred percent of NYEP’s graduates end up living productive, growing, and independent lives — free from the chains of poverty.

NYEP’s impact may seem small next to the daunting 11.6 million single mother households in the US, but remember what the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Every bit counts.

Or, remember Mother Teresa when she said, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one,” coming from one person whose Nobel-Prize-award-winning social impact rippled across the globe and affected millions.

In other words, it starts somewhere.

Grand plans from experts don’t make a dent in cyclical poverty. Reading strategy books doesn’t care for a single mother. Attending church — dare we say — doesn’t put a roof over the heads of a young homeless mother and her children.

Instead, it requires wrap-around support from organizations helping people overcome all the barriers poverty puts in front of them. And, it takes the most important characteristic that NYEP looks for in its participants — 8 out of 9 of NYEP’s qualifications use one word to describe what it takes to get into the program: applicants must be “willing.”

The young single mother with a child on her hip was willing to show up, week after week, in spite of the tiredness and headaches of packing up and getting in the car. She had the power within her to show up.

Programs like NYEP prove that women, with the right resources, have the power to break the cycle of poverty for themselves and for their children. It starts with a willingness to change, not just from the individual but from all of us, to help them overcome untenable obstacles.