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College Degree Presents a Pathway from Poverty to Prosperity for Single Mom and Her Family

June 08, 2018

By Mai P. Tran, ECMC Foundation

The sound of children’s laughter could be heard blocks away. After closing out her day, Christine Smith, a grants supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health arrives to pick up her five year old from elementary school.

Smith is excited about the next three days. It is Memorial Day weekend and she is looking forward to spending time with family and enjoying the warm rays of summer, which have finally come out after a long, brutal Minneapolis winter.

There are a lot of positive factors in Smith’s life: she’s happily married with three kids, has a rewarding job, and plans to go back to school for her doctorate degree in a few years.

Things, however, haven’t always been as picture perfect.

Christine Smith

Christine Smith's kids, then ages 4 and 5, in one of the housing units provided by Jeremiah Program. Smith and her kids lived there for four years.

Fifteen years ago, Smith felt hopeless: While her first marriage was falling apart, she also lost her home in a foreclosure, and had to move her family into her parents’ place. She describes that phase of her life as a “roller coaster” and says that was in “constant survival mode.”

A therapist told her about Jeremiah Program, (Jeremiah), an organization that works with single mothers who are determined to better their lives, attain their educational goals and improve their career prospects. Though reluctant at first, several months later, Smith gave the program a shot.

That’s when things began to change. Smith recalls a defining, transformational moment she experienced in one of Jeremiah’s empowerment classes: “I finally realized that I could subject my kids to this life for the rest of our lives, or I could do something about it – and I chose change.”

A holistic, two-generational anti-poverty program, Jeremiah offers five fundamental services: empowerment and life skills training, coaching for career-track college education, quality early childhood education, a supportive community and affordable housing. Jeremiah is also an ECMC Foundation grantee partner.

Like many single mothers, Smith realized that earning a postsecondary credential would be a game changer for her family. “My motivation [to go to college] was my kids. I was the sole provider,” she says.

Smith is part of an upward trend of single mothers who are enrolling into a postsecondary program. In fact, the number of single mothers enrolled has doubled since 1999, according to recent findings from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). Based in Washington, DC, IWPR received funding from ECMC Foundation to examine the costs and benefits single mothers’ attainment of college degrees. The project culminated in several research briefs.

IWPR found that the majority of single mothers enrolled in postsecondary programs often don’t graduate due to their need to juggle work, school, child care and finances on their own. Only 8 percent of single mothers who enroll in college will graduate with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 49 percent of female students without children.

While the odds were stacked against her, Smith was fortunate to have the support services and community that Jeremiah offers. She says the program gave her “the opportunity to focus on school instead of staying in an abusive marriage or having to work three jobs just to support [my] kids.” She and her children lived in the housing provided by Jeremiah until she graduated from Normandale Community College.

While Smith’s story has a happy needing, the journey to self-sufficiency wasn’t without challenges. “I was always on the brink of a mental break down the entire time.” Like many other single mothers in college, she wrestled with managing time between work, school and child care. Her story mirrors IWPR’s research study which found that on average, single mothers who are enrolled in college full-time, spend nine hours a day on child care and housework. There was “no work-life balance” Smith says. “I had to cram homework in whenever I could find time.”

For those who do make it through all the trials and challenges, the economic rewards are worth it: according to the IWPR study, degree attainment significantly reduces the likelihood of poverty and increases earning power. In fact, each level of education reduces the likelihood of living in poverty by 32 percent, translating to $329,498 for single mothers who graduate with an associates degree and $610,498 for single mothers who graduate with a bachelor’s degree and work full-time, year-round.

So what’s in the future for Smith? After she earns her doctorate in clinical psychology, she hopes to continue her research and lecture on the topic, as well as counsel women who struggle with similar issues she once did. “Jeremiah gave me the opportunity to heal. Now I want to give back and help families, systems, and communities break cycles that create adverse childhood experiences.”

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