WASHINGTON -- Evelyn Dortch left her husband more than a decade ago, got a college degree and now makes enough to support her four children and stay off welfare.
The 2000 census showed poverty rates declined for families led by single mothers like Dortch during the 1990s. Welfare reform, a booming economy, greater acceptance of single mothers in the workplace and crackdowns on deadbeat dads contributed to the trend, experts say.
Nevertheless, more than one-third of families led by single mothers still live below the poverty level, census data show. Many who left welfare rolls in the 1990s simply nudged themselves up to ''working poor'' status and are particularly vulnerable to the economic slowdown since then, said William O'Hare of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child advocacy group.
Dortch makes just $22,000, barely above the poverty line. Still, she calls herself a ''welfare success story.'' She collected welfare off and on until 1999, when she graduated from college with a social work degree.
Now Dortch works full time at a community development outreach program and plans to move her family -- her children are 11 to 16 years old -- out of public housing in St. Albans, W.Va.
''Education was my ticket out of poverty and to gaining my self-respect,'' she said. ''When (Congress) considers welfare reform, education needs to be the first priority, not employment.''
The census showed 34 percent of households led by a single mother with a child under 18 lived in poverty in 1999, an improvement from 42 percent in 1989. The Census Bureau asks about a person's economic status in the calendar year before forms are distributed.
For all families, poverty rates improved from 10 percent to 9 percent, while the rate for all residents improved from 13 percent to 12 percent, the census found.
''But the question is whether these lower rates are sustainable,'' said Jill Miller of the advocacy group Women Work!, which coordinates job training and education programs.
'Our concern is that we see women who work two or three jobs who managed to get themselves out of poverty, but at a very high cost.''
Diana Hernandez said things have gotten worse for her in recent years. She divorced in 1996 and raises her 8-year-old son and two teen-age daughters in temporary housing in San Leandro, Calif. She found the home with help from the Family Emergency Shelter Coalition.
''In 1990, I was fine. It's the last six years that have been difficult,'' Hernandez said.
She said the $79 in monthly child support she gets from her ex-husband barely helps pay for food. She sometimes skims money off utility bill payments to afford things like her son's Little League uniform.
''The big issue for me is child care -- not having it,'' said Hernandez, who is taking classes at a local college. As Congress debates whether to change the welfare system, Hernandez hopes lawmakers offer more child care help to single parents.
Paying for housing also is a problem for many single mothers.
''Rents skyrocketed during the boom period and are still up there, putting housing well out of reach in single-earner households,'' said Nancy Schlintz, director of the shelter that helped Hernandez. The shelter is south of Oakland, in a San Francisco metropolitan area with some of America's highest housing prices.
Poverty levels differ according to a household's makeup. For instance, in 1999, the poverty threshold for a family of five, including four children, was $19,578. By comparison, the threshold for a three-person household with one child was $13,410.
The poverty rates for households led by single mothers improved throughout the country except for the District of Columbia, where it worsened slightly, and Hawaii, where it remained relatively unchanged.
States in the South and more rural states tended to have higher percentages of single mothers in poverty. By county, urban counties like Los Angeles County, Calif. and Cook County, Ill. had the greatest number of single mother-led homes.
Poverty data for single mothers refers to women who live with either their own child or a related child at home. Previous surveys show most of these children are the women's offspring.
Sherry Dana of Springfield, Va., divorced five years ago and raises a 13-year-old daughter on her own. While the $400 her ex-husband provides each month helps cover the mortgage and pay for food, she said smaller items for her daughter, like a pair of jeans or a doctor's visit, affect her wallet the most.
''All I know is that single parents have it tough,'' she said. ''The incredible amount of work and the struggle to juggle.''
Income and poverty data come from the 2000 census long form questionnaire distributed to about one in six American households.
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