August 25, 2021

A year and a half into the coronavirus pandemic and, in the United States, one thing is clear: no one has suffered more than single mothers. They have lost their jobs and loved ones, and now — in what can only be described as America’s looming eviction crisis — they disproportionately face the threat of losing their homes, too. Nearly 19 million children in the US live with single parents, and more than 80% of them live with single mothers. These are the families who are largely struggling; more than 26% of solo parents reported being behind on rent between February and May, compared to 15% of renters generally. If a wave of evictions comes, it’s going to sweep these families out of their homes. Democrats have been trying to stanch this impending tsunami, but the dam may be about to burst. At the start of August, the Biden administration, through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, imposed a federal ban on evictions in most of the United States. That prohibition is set to be lifted on 3 October, but it’s being challenged in court; one judge has already said she doesn’t believe it will hold up to Supreme Court scrutiny. In the meantime, the Biden administration and various state agencies are scrambling to disperse rental assistance funds to keep people in their homes for as long as possible.

But the roll-out of rental assistance has been a frenzied debacle of bureaucracy, malfunctioning technology and poor information-sharing. Crucially, it comes more than a year after pandemic eviction moratoriums kept tenants housed, but still let them accrue staggering bills for back rent and fees — all while offering little recourse to landlords who still had mortgages, taxes and bills to pay. I had a little glimpse into this already broken system years before the pandemic when I worked as a lawyer representing low-income tenants in housing court. One colleague described the work as akin to plugging up holes to stave off catastrophe, but unable to do anything about the never-ending flood. My clients were overwhelmingly single mothers dealing with complex challenges, and my job involved more time navigating New York’s byzantine welfare bureaucracy than just about anything else. Many clients wound up in housing court facing potential eviction again and again, often through no fault of their own. Some were women who paid rent through a combination of their own income and social assistance programmes, and would be surprised to learn that a few extra hours of work per week had, unbeknown to them, pushed their benefits down, resulting in months of under-paid or unpaid rent. Others had initially represented themselves in housing court — Americans typically are not entitled to free legal representation unless they’ve been charged with a crime —and signed on to an impossible-to-meet deal with their landlord, who typically had an attorney; those deals routinely included payments for back rent and significant fees that poor tenants simply couldn’t pay, setting them up for failure and eviction. Others were too broke to pay rent after missing work to care for a sick child. I was struck by how many of my clients’ children, who largely grew up in low-income housing, seemed to suffer from everything ranging from asthma to learning disabilities to profound physical and mental disabilities, and how often they were in the ER or the hospital, or needed full-time care at home. It was unusual that a client wouldn’t have a sick child, something I began to suspect was a direct outcome of the sub-standard housing environments in which they were being raised. And that was well before a pandemic pushed those already on the edge of the cliff clear off it. Since Covid shutdowns steamrolled the US economy and knocked workers — particularly those on low wages — out of their jobs, roughly 15 million Americans have fallen behind on rent. And that has ripple effects, particularly on the small landlords who depend on rental revenue to pay their mortgages, taxes and sometimes their own income. As of this spring, about a third of small landlords were behind on their mortgage payments and facing potential bankruptcy or foreclosure. American tenants’ collective unpaid rent bill now totals more than $20 billion dollars. So as soon as they legally can, landlords are going to demand that renters pay or get out — even if the result could be millions of children without homes. What’s worse, for many poor and single-parent families, the coming evictions are merely the culmination of a knot of hardships. Families with children face eviction more often than families without; domestic violence victims are also particularly vulnerable to being evicted. Even without pandemic-induced uncertainty, African-American renters are evicted more often than white Americans and female renters are disproportionately likely to be evicted. That’s not only because of racial and gender discrimination on the part of landlords, but rather the result of centuries-old inequities: African Americans make less money than white Americans, women make less money than men, and black and Latina women make the least of all. African Americans are also less likely than whites to have steady employment, more likely to rent and have far less generational wealth to rely on. If you’re the white parent of a young child, you are more likely than a similar black parent to have a parent or other family member who you can turn to for money when you need it — for example, if you’re behind on rent and don’t want to get evicted. While the story of Covid-19 and women has been well-documented — women were more likely to lose their jobs than men, and when school went remote and childcare shut down, it was women who were forced to drop out of the workforce to care for children — what’s been less discussed is that these hardships were not evenly distributed. More than 5 million women left the workforce when Covid closed businesses and sent children home full-time, and more than a million of them have still not returned. Single mothers, who already faced much higher unemployment rates than married mothers before Covid, saw their joblessness rates skyrocket as Covid peaked, and stay high through the present. Last year, unmarried mothers were more than twice as likely as married mothers to be unemployed. And despite being more likely than white women to be their family’s primary breadwinner, black and Latina mothers were also much more likely to say that they were responsible for all of their family’s housework when Covid hit. The same groups that tend to see higher shares of single mothers — black families, low-income families, Americans with less than a college degree — also saw higher infection and death rates from Covid-19. It’s no real surprise, then, that black parents were more sceptical of schools reopening in person than white parents, and may have been less likely to send their kids to school where in-person learning was available. But many black mothers tell reporters and researchers they’re making the obvious choice to keep their kids safe and alive, even if it hurts their family’s financial bottom line. To put a finer point on it: it’s not Covid job losses alone that have left so many unable to pay rent and created the coming storm of evicted single moms and their kids. It’s school closures. It’s a generational wealth gap that has single mothers, who are disproportionately black and low-income, living on the edge and with no one to call for help. And perhaps most of all, it’s the fact that so many low-income Americans have long been paying more than they can afford in rent, because there are no other options and so little help. The American housing system was broken before Covid, with unbearably high rents and too few affordable and even middle-class housing options in the most popular and populous urban areas, where so many of us have to live for work. Covid has now pushed it past the brink. And make no mistake: eviction comes with a cascade of effects downstream. Tenants who have an eviction on their record have a much harder time finding housing in the future, and may wind up more reliant on landlords who charge a premium for housing the otherwise unhouseable. Children in families that are evicted move around a lot, and as a result have lower school attendance rates and lower academic achievement. They have less consistent access to nutritious food and wind up more sick than kids with consistent housing. The US is gearing itself for a recovery. Single mothers, though, are not. Unless the federal government does something more radical than a temporary eviction moratorium — and something more sustainable and efficient than the current rent relief program — it’s single mothers and their kids who will be among the first to find themselves out of a home. And the negative impact on women and children — poorer health, fewer days in school, falling behind academically, less stable housing going forward — could take generations to heal.