Mothers, During A Pandemic: The Hunger Disparity of Motherhood

Ruth was excited to get a job at Walmart … and then.

Her name is Ruth. Ruth is first and foremost a mother, but she is also a former recipient of the Food Bank of South Jersey and now an energized, inspiring volunteer. She is just one of many mothers in South Jersey who rely on the Food Bank of South Jersey’s more than 210 food distribution network of agency partners, such as Ruth’s community pantry, Beacon of Hope in Burlington County, to provide nourishment and peace of mind.

“My son was 16 at the time and by the time I bought milk and cereal and some basics, that $50 food stamps was just not enough and I knew I needed help. So I had to find other ways to fill that need. Someone told me about Beacon of Hope in Mount Holly. Pastor Darlene overfilled me with food from the food bank, and even bags of fresh produce, which was a blessing in itself,” shared Ruth. “If it wasn’t for Beacon of Hope and the Food Bank of South Jersey I don’t know how my son and I would have survived.”

Mothers … surviving in historic food insecurity. 

The pandemic-induced economic fallout of COVID-19 disrupted households across the United States, causing historic financial strain and, for mothers – particularly single mothers – a larger than ever disparity in access to food for their children. The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to conduct in-depth research of problems facing society at the local, national and global level. Lauren Bauer, a Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, recently published an observation on the plight of mothers as the pandemic continues to impact and disrupt life.

The piece, Mothers are being left behind in the economic recovery from COVID-19, paints a stark picture of life for mothers today – many struggling with continued joblessness or under employment, caused by COVID, leading to exacerbated or first-time poverty, with others – married and single – struggling to feed their children in a climate of crushing economic disparity and more deeply entrenched inequities. 

According to Bauer, about 14 percent of unmarried mothers and mothers whose youngest child was under the age of 6 reported that they left their job due to child-care responsibilities in 2020 compared with 8 percent of mothers with children 6 to 12. While more than 7 percent of each group lost their job during the COVID-19 pandemic from March to October, 11 percent of unmarried mothers did. Taken together, a quarter of unmarried mothers reported that they left or lost their job in 2020 compared with 18 percent of married mothers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, not everyone had the opportunity or flexibility to care for their children and keep their job, not everyone had a spouse or partner with whom one could share caregiving burdens, not everyone has an employer or job responsibilities that allow for juggling, not everyone could make ends meet. As of March 2021, mothers are lagging behind fathers in returning to pre-pandemic averages and are experiencing material hardship as measured by food insecurity.

Food Insecurity: The state of being without reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.

One of the population groups at most risk are women with school aged children. As schools continue to adhere to completely on-line or hybrid schedules, mothers are disproportionately finding themselves unable to go to a place of business. If they cannot work remotely, they are forced to leave the workforce.

Pew Research has discovered that In September 2020, 67.4% of single mothers with children younger than 18 at home were working, compared with 76.1% one year ago. This is over twice the rate of single fathers. Between September 2019 and September 2020, Black and Hispanic single mothers each experienced about a 10-point decline in their share of the working, unpartnered parent segment. This was nearly double the decrease in the share of Caucasian single mothers who are working. The decrease in the shares of Black and Hispanic single working mothers is also nearly double what their partnered counterparts experienced in this yearlong period.

The decline in the share of all single working mothers employed is pronounced among those whose youngest child is 5 years or younger.

In September 2020, 58.5% of single moms in this group were employed, down from 69.7% a year earlier. Unpartnered mothers whose youngest child is 6 to 17 years old also saw a drop, but not as steep – from 79.6% in September 2019 to 71.9% in September 2020. In this same time frame, there was about a 4-point drop among partnered moms whose youngest child is 5 years old or younger (from 60.5% to 56.9%) and a roughly 6-point drop for those partnered mothers whose youngest child is 6 to 17 years old (from 72.7% to 67.0%). Regardless of their relationship status, mothers are generally more likely to be employed and at work if they have older children, according to In the pandemic, share of unpartnered moms at work fell more sharply than among other parents, Pew Research, November 24, 2020.

Additional findings by Pew Research include:

  • Unpartnered mothers with young children at home also saw more of a decrease in labor force participation — that is, the percentage of the population 16 or older actively working or looking for work — from September 2019 to September 2020 than did other mothers. The labor force participation rates declined about 7 percentage points for single mothers whose youngest child is 5 years old or younger, compared with a 3-point drop for those whose youngest child is 6 to 17 years old. The labor force participation rate for partnered mothers edged down by 1 point for those whose youngest child is 5 years old or younger and dropped about 3 points for those whose youngest child is 6 to 17 years old.
  • The disproportionate impact of pandemic-related job loss on single mothers reflects, at least in part, the demographic characteristics of this group. Black women made up 31.4% of single mothers in September 2020, compared with only 12.2% of all mothers older than 16. When considering education levels, 26.9% of unpartnered mothers had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 43.3% of all mothers 16 and older. These statistics clearly show that the pandemic-induced recession has hit particular groups, such as Black and Hispanic women and those with less education, especially hard.
  • Overall, women are more likely than men to be a single parent. In September 2020, 19.7% of mothers living with children younger than 18 at home had no partner present, a much higher share than among fathers (4.7%). Single mothers are more likely than single fathers to live with young children. Some 33.6% of single mothers live with children younger than 6, compared with 25.9% of single fathers.

Think of Ruth.

Ruth is just one of the countless women in South Jersey who assume the enormous, selfless responsibility of motherhood. As we move forward, it is clear the COVID-19 crisis will require continuing effort across broad swaths of the nation: Government, business, education and non-profit sectors all must participate in the fight. As a collective in these post-pandemic days, the United States is positioned acutely to reset its approach to the management of the consequences of systemic poverty, debilitating food insecurity and inequitable economic opportunities and, with deliberate intent, reset the nation to one that provides proactive measures to frame sustainable life improvements, economic opportunities and food security for all.