They work hard, these single mothers — at times juggling two, even three jobs — for wages that still fall short of meeting their families’ needs.
And each resorts to a financial triage of sorts when there isn’t enough money to pay for the necessities in a given month.
“Sometimes I would make the car payments so I wouldn’t lose the car, but miss the rent,” said Elena Rios, 37, a divorced mother of three boys. “Sometimes I would pay the rent and miss the car payments.”
She works as a teacher’s aide at a day-care center on weekdays and at a catering hall on Saturdays and Sundays. Even so, Rios said, she fell behind in rent payments and needed help from a social service agency to recover.
Kerice Ferro, 26, a mother of three who works full-time as a security guard in Melville, outlined her strategy.
“I pay a little bit on everything. Whatever I make, I try to stretch it,” she said. “Right now, my landlord is basically working with me. I still owe him.”
Kristen Franchuk, 31, and her young son live in her childhood home in Hicksville with her mother and brother because she can’t afford a place of her own. A certified nurse’s assistant in a St. James nursing home, she dreams of paying off a car loan and student loan debt and being able to rent an apartment to simply “live my life with me and my child.”
The three women represent a group of people that government statistics show have the highest poverty rate in the nation and on Long Island. The U.S. Census Bureau defines them simply as “female householder, no husband present, with related children under 18.”
The 2015 poverty threshold for a family of four in the United States was $24,447 in annual income — up from $24,230 the year before. The threshold, issued yearly by the Census Bureau, is used to determine the number of people in poverty.
Nationally, single women with children had a poverty rate of 40.6 percent, more than twice the 15.5 percent poverty rate for all people, according to the bureau’s 2014 estimates, the most recent available.
On the Island, that national pattern held true.
For single women who were heads of households with children, the poverty rate was 23 percent in Nassau County and 24.8 percent in Suffolk — far above the overall poverty rate of 6.4 percent in Nassau and 7.4 percent in Suffolk.
Some of the disparity has to do with long-standing societal structures, experts said. One paycheck doesn’t go as far as two, they pointed out, and in many instances women earn less than men.
“If there’s only one income to support multiple people, that puts a strain on budgets,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program in Washington, D.C., who specializes in urban and suburban policy.
“I think the other piece is also about what kinds of jobs are they working in? If they’re in a service-sector job, are they able to get 40 hours a week or more to pay their bills and keep their families economically stable?” Kneebone continued. “What is the skill level, the educational level? That can make a difference too. . . . If you’re the only worker in a family, if you don’t have paid sick days or family leave and don’t have the ability to have flexibility or paid time off, that can be a further strain on your budget.”
These Long Island women’s stories include personal hardship but also a determination to overcome it. They said they’re not content to sit back and accept government aid. Two of the women — Rios and Ferro — get food stamps and Medicaid and are grateful for that support.
The men who fathered their children also live on the margins of society. Some provide child support and some do not; some are regularly active in their kids’ lives while others are not.
“I just feel a lot of people stereotype and judge” single mothers, Franchuk said. She thinks a prevailing sentiment about people like her is that either they don’t want to work or they don’t work hard enough.
In actuality, she said, there have been periods when she worked as many as three jobs at a time. In her current job at Mills Pond Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, she grosses about $2,000 a month.
Franchuk wanted to show her boss her dedication to patients who need care around the clock. So in the early morning hours of the Jan. 23 blizzard, she got on the road to make the 7 a.m. start of her shift.
“It was high, but it wasn’t bad, bad” yet, she said of the snow. At any rate, she had a job to do.
Experts said a lack of education may plague many poor single mothers, an issue that was on the minds of these Long Island women.
Franchuk, who said she has certifications as a medical assistant and nurse’s assistant, has further aspirations. She plans to pursue a career as a licensed practical nurse and has started test-preparation classes to be ready to take an entrance exam.
Ferro, who once sought a career in nursing and said she has certifications as a medical assistant and nurse’s assistant, now wants to focus on criminal justice, following the 2006 slaying of her twin brother, Kail.
She said she got an associate’s degree in criminal justice in 2009 from SBI Campus in Melville, an affiliate of Sanford-Brown, a for-profit college. It is among several Sanford-Brown colleges and institutes that no longer accept new students as they gradually close operations. “Now I’m trying to get back into school and finish my bachelor’s,” Ferro said.
Each woman looks to the future with hope.
Ferro had her first child as a teenager, but she doesn’t apologize for it. Before motherhood, Ferro said, “I was a terror. . . . But my oldest son was just like the biggest life change to me. He made me look at life differently.”
Life now involves trying to be a good mother and providing for her children, ages 9, 4 and 1.
She and the other women who spoke to Newsday all have been helped by Family & Children’s Association, a nonprofit agency based in Mineola that has a network of services and counseling programs to aid disadvantaged people, from infants to seniors. They received assistance through the agency’s Family Ties program.
“They helped me get things for my children when I didn’t have it for Christmas,” Ferro said. “They helped me get my son into a program to help him with his ADHD. They helped me with a lot,” such as developing more effective parenting strategies.
“The first thing we do is offer support,” said Donna Teichner, Family & Children’s assistant vice president of preventive services. That may involve helping families access governmental and other benefits.
Amanda Fee, a preventive case worker for the agency, took note of a common complaint that the poor should “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps.”
As a rejoinder, she offered something she had read that reflects the difficulties of climbing out of destitution and desperation: “What I’ve noticed through this job is some people don’t have boots.”
Michael Zweig, a Stony Brook University economics professor who also directs the university’s Center for Study of Working Class Life, faults government policies for not providing a fuller assortment of aid that could do more to ease the strains low-income families face.
“The U.S. is the only advanced country that does not have universal health care, or paid family or sick leave to take care of children,” Zweig said. “If you’re in France, Germany, England or Japan, you get those things. If kids get sick, you don’t lose your job. Societies have made the decision to take care of people. It’s in everybody’s interest.” Not having such policies, he said, “reflects poorly on us.”
Ferro said she got behind in her rent when she wasn’t paid during her firm’s break over the Christmas holiday. “We’re off, basically, two weeks and we don’t get paid,” she said.
The U.S. poverty threshold also comes under criticism from some experts as being an inadequate measure, principally because it doesn’t account for regional differences in housing and other costs. The threshold, which is adjusted annually only for inflation, was $3,200 for a family of four when the federal government adopted it in 1965.
Zweig, noting the Island’s high housing costs, said a family of four on Long Island needs “at least $100,000 [annually] to have a stress-free economic existence.”
It certainly hasn’t been a stress-free economic existence for Rios, Ferro and Franchuk.
When Rios fell several months behind in rent payments last year — to the point that eviction from her Carle Place apartment was a threat — she was referred to Family & Children’s.
Fee helped Rios with the paperwork that enabled her to obtain a one-time grant from the Nassau County Department of Social Services to cover what was in arrears.
“I’ve been incredibly blessed,” said Rios, citing support from her church, The New Life Church in Old Westbury, as well as Our Lady of Hope Roman Catholic Church in Carle Place, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Carle Place school district, an uncle, and Family & Children’s. She calls Fee “my cup of chamomile tea.”
Rios, a teacher’s aide at Little Sponges Daycare in Westbury and a server and bridal attendant at Chateau Briand Caterers in Carle Place, said she grosses $1,600 a month from the jobs. Child support payments boost her monthly income to about $2,500. She has fixed monthly expenses of just over $2,100, leaving little room for emergencies or much else.
The rent alone on the one-bedroom apartment that she shares with her three boys, ages 16, 11 and 1, is $1,600 a month.
“The reason I’ve been struggling is because I live in an expensive area,” Rios said.
A few years ago, she recalled, her eldest son, Stephen, now 16, “sat me down and had a talk with me. Not me having a talk with him. He had a talk with me. And he said, ‘Mom, I want to graduate from Carle Place High School.’ ”
Speaking of how hard her son has worked, she reached for a binder filled with her and her family’s achievements and pulled out a program that listed her son among the school’s Honor Roll inductees.
Rios said she is determined to remain in the community where she feels her children have greater educational opportunities and a better environment.
The take-home pay of Ferro, the security guard, is about $1,300 a month. Her monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Glen Cove is $1,350, not including utilities, which during the winter cost her another $260 a month.
While she’s eligible for a housing voucher under Section 8 — the federal program that assists very low-income families, the elderly and the disabled — there is a yearslong waiting list. She said she’s been on the waitlist for five years.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledges a lengthy time span often is the case. “Since demand for housing assistance exceeds the limited resources available to HUD and the local housing agencies, long waiting periods are common,” an agency fact sheet said.
“Just trying to live managing expenses is very hard,” Ferro said.
Transportation has been a challenge for the women — both in not having a vehicle and facing the difficulties of getting around, or having one and dealing with insurance and maintenance costs.
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey, transportation is the second-highest household expenditure, topped only by housing costs.
Poor households spend a higher proportion of their income on transportation, and have more limited vehicle availability and fewer transportation options, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey, the most recent. And in the suburbs, transportation “becomes an even greater problem since suburban neighborhoods have fewer transit options compared to more densely populated urban areas,” the survey said.
Franchuk said she went a year without a car when her old one was repossessed. She has since gotten another one.
When she didn’t have a car, her days began early so she could make the 30-minute walk from her home to the Hicksville train station.
“I used to have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning to catch the 5:55” to Central Islip. Then, either a co-worker would pick her up and drive her to St. James, or she would take a cab.
Being without a car meant she often could not meet the school bus when it dropped off her 9-year-old son, a special education student who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. School officials voiced concern, leading to a referral to Family & Children’s.
“I get out of work at 3, but by the time I took the train to get home, even if I hopped in the cab, I wasn’t making it on time,” Franchuk said. “It was a year of stress. But I got through it.”
Fee said the agency connected Franchuk with day care services for her son “to make sure he’s cared for and safe.”
All three women, who praise the help of the agency’s social workers, see better times ahead.
“I feel like I’m getting somewhere,” Franchuk said.
“I don’t let anything stop me at all,” Ferro said. “I have kids that depend on me.”
And Rios cited a positive attitude, humor and a drive to press on. “That’s the only way I can go through life.” She said she keeps telling herself, “I got this. I can do this.”