- Associated Press - Saturday, November 14, 2020

FREDERICK, Md. (AP) - Janice Smith got her first job when she was 14, sweeping up hair and washing the windows at a salon in Walkersville. She feels she had no other choice.

Smith, now a 44-year-old single mother of three, used to stand in line at the food bank with her mother and pray the electricity wouldn’t be shut off at home.

Her parents separated when she was 4. By the time she was a teenager, she had become the primary caretaker of the house. Her mother, who has since died, suffered with mental health issues and had trouble keeping a job, according to Smith.

It often fell to Smith to deposit the disability checks or child-support payments and write the checks to pay the bills, which she said often required her to forge her mother’s signature.

“It was more of an effort that I’ve got to get these bills paid so my mother could maintain her sanity, and it can be a happy household,” Smith said.

As Smith’s life and career advanced - she now works full-time for Wells Fargo Home Mortgage - her standard of living did not.

A teenage pregnancy derailed her plans of going to college, and, now, with three of her own kids to care for at home, she was getting passed over for promotions at work by people with similar skill sets and maybe even less experience. Why? Because they had college degrees.

“I often asked myself ‘why is this so difficult?’” Smith said. “I have had a job for most of my life. I have done everything right that’s in my capabilities to do right. I work hard. I do the stuff that I am supposed to do. Why is this so hard?”

They are questions that many single mothers, like Smith, ask here in Frederick County and abroad. Almost 80 percent of single moms in the county have a difficult time affording a basic standard of living, according to the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report published last month by the United Way of Frederick County.

Many are unable to attend college or obtain some form of higher education due to demands on their time and budgets, as well as the needs of their children.

So they are forced into a workforce where gender-wage gaps exist, and it can be difficult to obtain a higher-paying job without a college degree.

“As a mother, all you are thinking about is ‘I want to live a comfortable life and be able to provide for my kids.’ That’s it,” said Jenny Cruz, a single mother from Frederick. “That’s all you are thinking about.”

Cruz, a mother of two boys, saw her life turned upside down several years ago, when her marriage ended.

She went to Social Services and applied for “anything and everything they could give me.” The assistance she received eventually led her to her current job in human resources for a local plumbing company.

“If I could put it in one sentence, your children give you the strength,” Cruz said. “Wanting to give them a better life, wanting to give them more, it just activates something in a mom’s brain, body, heart and soul. It gives you strength you never knew you had.”

Single fathers, by comparison, do not fall under the ALICE threshold at nearly the same rate (49 percent in Frederick County). Some have access to higher paying jobs. Some don’t face the same child care responsibilities.

The gender gap economically has only been further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. In September alone, 865,000 women left the workforce or were laid off nationwide, compared to 216,000 men, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

“Single mothers who are in this position due to having to care for their children will be further financially disadvantaged, and will make economic recovery for them even harder,” said Malcolm Furgol, the director of community impact and grants for the United Way of Frederick County.

“We must face the child care crisis that existed even before the pandemic to not only give single mothers a fighting chance economically, but all families in our community.”

Olivia Huntington, 24, of Frederick, was working full-time and attending classes at Frederick Community College until caring for her young daughter, Alayna, made it too difficult. She dropped out of school.

“I decided to just balance the work-family life instead of the work-school-family life,” Huntington said.

Over time, she discovered her passion for helping other people and wanted to pursue a career in social services with an emphasis on helping children. She knew she needed to go back to school to jumpstart that pursuit.

“I just didn’t know all of the resources I did have being a single mom trying to balance school and work life,” she said.

With the help of her mother, Huntington found FCC’s Parent Lead program, which offers financial assistance to parents in pursuit of a degree.

With the aid of the program, Huntington was able to obtain daycare vouchers for Alayna, who is now 4 years old, as well as her 10-month-old son, Hayden.

“You don’t have to worry about, well, I don’t have schooling for my kid. I don’t have a babysitter at night time and I work during the day, so I can’t go to school,” Huntington said. “Whatever your excuses are to not attend school, they have some kind of resource for you (with Parent Lead).”

Life can still feel really hectic. Huntington is the primary caretaker for her two young children, while working full time and pursuing a degree in social work with a minor in psychology.

“It is definitely very crazy,” she said with a laugh. “Sometimes you just have to lock yourself in the bathroom for a minute.”

But her job as a patient support specialist for Potomac Case Management, which provides mental-health services to adults and children, is in her field of interest, and she feels like her life is on track.

“Not only am I doing it for myself and to make a career out of my life, I am doing it for my mom, too,” Huntington said. “I know she would love to see one of her (three) kids graduate from college.”

Cruz and Smith are making progress, too, despite living on the ALICE brink without a ton of disposable income in their budgets. They are both on track to earn their associate degrees at FCC.

Cruz said she talks to other single moms and, through her own experience, tries to help them.

“If you want it, you can do it. You can find it,” she said. “If you need it, you just have to go out there and suck up your pride and say, ‘I need help.’”

Smith, meanwhile, dug out of credit-card debt and purchased her own home in Walkersville.

“I feel like I am a success story. But I also feel like I have so much more to do,” she said. “I try to tell other people it can get better. You just have to continually trudge forward in the right direction.”

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