The Best (and Worst) Cities for Single Mothers

June 2, 2016 by Evan Comen

Single mother
Source: Thinkstock
Raising children on a single income is no easy feat, and single mothers in the United States struggle more than almost any other group of Americans. Still, some cities are easier for single mothers trying to make ends meet — and some cities are far worse.

The costs of housing, food, childcare, and education give some sense of the challenges facing single mothers in the United States. The difficulties of single motherhood often go far beyond these basic considerations. For example, the availability of and access to pre-K public schools, paid maternity leave, and the quality of public transportation all tend to disproportionately impact women raising children alone. 24/7 Wall St. reviewed a range of social and economic indicators to determine the best (and worst) U.S. metropolitan areas for single mothers.

Housing is usually the largest expense for any family, and especially for single mothers, who tend to be responsible for larger families. The average single mother household has 3.5 occupants, almost a full person more than the national average household size. Single mothers earning the median wage would need to work as few as 47 hours a week to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in Bloomsburg-Berwick, Pennsylvania. In Honolulu, Hawaii, however, they would need to work as many as 152 hours a week — an impossible feat. In such a difficult rental market, many single mothers struggle to afford stable and suitable housing. Nationwide, less than half of all single mothers own their homes, compared to 64.4% of all households who do.

Click here to see the best cities for single mothers.

Click here to see the worst cities for single mothers.

In an interview with 24/7 Wall St., Ariane Hegewisch, program director for employment and earnings at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said there are several other issues of particular importance to single mothers. She explained that for single mothers, the question is, “Can you leave your kids somewhere that is safe; can you get to and from childcare or work reasonably easily; and, are you protected when you or your child gets sick?”

For Hegewisch, these questions can be largely addressed by city and state level public programs. When a mother can enroll her child in pre-kindergarten school, for example, not only does her child receive childcare and an education, but she becomes liberated to work or further her own education. Nationwide, 47.4% of three- and four-year old children attend school. In all but one of the 10 best cities for single mothers, more than half of young children are enrolled in school. In nine of the 10 worst cities for single mothers, the opposite is true.

In the New York City area, 62.4% of three- and four-year old children are enrolled in school. This percentage, which is already seventh highest compared with U.S. metros, will likely increase in coming years as New York City recently implemented free full-day pre-K school for children of city residents.

Single mothers tend to earn far lower incomes and are far more likely to live in poverty compared to every other household arrangement — the national median income for single mother households with young children is $24,403 a year, and 30.9% of these households live in poverty. Since the economic conditions are often so dire, government subsidies and programs such as universal pre-K are often not enough to alleviate the bulk of the challenges. California is among the states offering relatively generous government programs, for example. However, due largely to extremely poor socioeconomic factors, three of the worst cities for single mothers are in California.

Hegewisch noted that the challenges facing single mothers in the United States are numerous, and compounding. Not only are single mothers less likely to have completed high school or college, but attaining further qualifications and education is also extremely difficult. Similarly, “becoming a single mother increases the likelihood that you will live in poverty but also living in poverty increases the likelihood that you will become a single mother,” Hegewisch said.

The responsibilities of single motherhood — working one or multiple jobs, ensuring children arrive and leave school or daycare on time, and so on — are often coupled with financial distress. For this reason, access to transportation is another vital element of a city favorable to single mothers. As Hegewisch explained, the generally reliable access to transportation and other services in cities means urban centers are almost always better for single mothers than rural regions.

These are the best (and worst) cities for single mothers.

Click here to see the full methodology.

 The Best Cities for Single Mothers

10. La Crosse-Onalaska, WI-MN
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
58.8 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $828
> Median income for single mother household: $29,121
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 52.7%

In the La Crosse-Onalaska metro area, single mothers fare better than in most of the country. The typical household led by a single mother earns $29,121 annually, about $5,000 more than the $24,403 a typical single mother-led household earns nationwide. While single mothers tend to earn drastically less than most householders, the gap is slightly narrower in La Crosse. Single mother-led families in La Crosse earn 56.9% of the median household income in the metro area. Nationwide, single mother households earn 45.6% of median household income.

For the 47.4% of single mothers in the La Crosse area who live in rental housing, affordable real estate is essential. A typical two-bedroom apartment costs $828 per month in La Crosse-Onalaska. A single mother would need to work approximately 59 hours at the median wage to afford such housing in the metro area, a relatively short workweek compared to most of the country.

9. Boulder, CO
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
77.9 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,381
> Median income for single mother household: $32,568
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 65.0%

Public support systems such as pre-K public schools are especially helpful to single mothers. In the Boulder area, 65% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, the third highest proportion of all metro areas and an indication of a strong pre-K school system.

Single mothers in every part of the country are more likely than others to struggle financially. Of single mother households in Boulder, 21.8% live in poverty. While this is far higher than the official poverty rate for all households, it is well below the national poverty rate for single mother households of 30.9%.

8. Bloomsburg-Berwick, PA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
47.1 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $763
> Median income for single mother household: $26,698
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 44.6%

Unlike most of the best cities for single mothers, Bloomsburg-Berwick residents do not have especially high incomes. While incomes among single mothers in the area are even lower, the single mother household poverty rate of 25.1% is well below the single mother household poverty rate nationwide of 30.9%. Also, compared with most cities, the typical single mother in Bloomsburg has to work fewer hours to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

Despite its relative affordability, Bloomsburg’s other public support systems may be lacking. Bloomsburg is the only city on this list where fewer than half of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, suggesting a relatively weak pre-K school system. Also, only around two-thirds of Bloomsburg women who give birth in a given year have at least a high school diploma, versus three-quarters of women nationwide. As Hegewisch noted, not only are single mothers more likely to have lower levels of education, but it is also often very difficult for single parents to attend school.

7. Trenton, NJ
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
72.5 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,328
> Median income for single mother household: $31,686
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 63.4%

The typical single mother in Trenton earns $31,686 a year, much more than the $24,403 the typical single mother household earns nationwide. Trenton also has relatively good public childcare, which can significantly soften the burden of single motherhood. With 63.4% of three- and four-year olds enrolled in school, Trenton has the fifth best early education enrollment rate nationwide.

New Jersey is one of just three states with guaranteed paid family and medical leave. Workers can take up to six weeks off for family care and up 26 weeks off for a personal disability, which can include pregnancy. Workers on leave are eligible for 66% of their average weekly wages and in 2014 were paid $505 a week in these benefits on average.

6. New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
78.1 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,527
> Median income for single mother household: $29,091
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 62.4%

Raising one or multiple children alone is extremely difficult, especially with low wages — a statistical likelihood for single mothers nationwide. Pre-K schooling, effectively free childcare and education, is therefore especially beneficial for single mothers. New York City recently introduced free, full-day pre-K, which will likely benefit single mothers more than anyone else. Currently, 62.4% of three- and four- year olds in the New York City area are enrolled in school, the seventh highest proportion of all U.S. metros and an indication of a strong pre-K school system.

Along with access to childcare, public transportation is also among the most important features of a city for single mothers — and the New York City area public transit system is one of the most accessible transit systems in the country. The area boasts a nation-leading share of workers using public transit of 30.4%.

5. Durham-Chapel Hill, NC
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
49.6 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $922
> Median income for single mother household: $26,132
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 50.1%

By measures of income, childcare, and housing affordability, Durham-Chapel Hill is one of the best metro areas for single mothers. A single mother has to work 49.6 hours per week at the median wage to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment in Durham-Chapel Hill, one of only nine metro areas in which this measure is less than 50 hours.

Durham and Chapel Hill are two corners of the North Carolina Research Triangle, which together with Raleigh form a hub for high-tech companies and large research universities. With numerous educational and occupational opportunities, the metro area also has above average college attainment and single mother employment.

4. Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk, CT
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
80.1 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,646
> Median income for single mother household: $32,331
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 68.7%

Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk is one of the wealthiest places in the country. While single mother households in Bridgeport earn significantly less than other city households, the median single mother household income of $32,331 is the 12th highest nationwide. Despite the relatively higher income, Bridgeport is one of the less affordable places for single mothers to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

Bridgeport offers other public support. While fewer than half of all toddlers attend preschool nationwide, 68.7% of all three- and four-year olds in Bridgeport are enrolled in school — the highest share of any metro area. Access to public transportation can also improve single mothers’ quality of life. Almost one in 10 Bridgeport metro area workers commute on public transit, the seventh highest such share in the country.

3. Cedar Rapids, IA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
52.9 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $718
> Median income for single mother household: $26,448
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 52.6%

A two-bedroom apartment in Cedar Rapids goes for just $718 a month, one of the lower rents of any metro area. Coupled with the $26,448 a typical single mother household earns annually — more than the median for single mothers nationwide — Cedar Rapids is relatively affordable. A typical single mother would have to work 52.9 hours a week to afford such an apartment, a relatively short workweek compared to most metro areas. A disproportionately high share of Cedar Rapids single mothers own their homes. Of single mother households in the area, 58.9% own their homes compared to 45.6% of single mothers nationally.

2. Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
67.7 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,214
> Median income for single mother household: $32,072
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 66.6%

Accessible early education not only boosts educational preparedness of children, but can enable single mothers to enter employment as well. In Hartford, 66.6% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, the second largest share of U.S. metro areas. Single mothers earn far more money in Hartford than in most parts of the country and are more likely to be employed. The typical single mother household makes $32,072 annually, much more than the $24,403 median income for single mother households nationwide.

1. Norwich-New London, CT
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
60.9 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,119
> Median income for single mother household: $38,063
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 61.2%

Of the hundreds of metros reviewed, the Norwich-New London, Connecticut area is one of only nine where the single mother household poverty rate does not exceed 20%. The median annual income of single mother households in the Norwich area is $38,063. While this does not seem high compared to the median income for all households of $66,693, it is the second highest in the country compared to single mothers with children.

With 61.2% of three- and four-year old children enrolled in school in the area, well above the national percentage of 47.4%, Norwich-New London likely has a reasonably strong pre-K school system. For single mothers with young children, accessible pre-K schooling is among the most beneficial aspects of a city’s public infrastructure.

The Worst Cities for Single Mothers

10. Goldsboro, NC
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
79.2 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $746
> Median income for single mother household: $17,646
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 35.2%

While the price of a typical two-bedroom apartment in Goldsboro, at $746, is among the cheaper rents of most metro areas, low area incomes make the city one of the less affordable places to live. The typical single mother earns just $17,646 annually, and would have to work 79.2 hours a week to afford such an apartment.

The somewhat limited early education in Goldsboro does little to alleviate the childcare responsibilities of single parenthood. Just 35.2% of Goldsboro three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, much less than the 47.4% national share.

9. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
91.3 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,187
> Median income for single mother household: $26,199
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 36.8%

As one of just three states with guaranteed paid medical and family leave, California has actually enacted some of the most helpful policies for single parents. Workers on leave in California stand to make 55% of their average weekly wages, with a maximum weekly payment of $1,129. By contrast, in most of the country these benefits are not provided by the state at all.

In certain parts of California, however, poor economic conditions create a less than friendly environment for single mothers. With high rent and low income, the typical single mother in the Riverside metro area would need to work 91.3 hours a week to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment, making the metro one of the least affordable housing markets for single mothers in the country.

8. Elkhart-Goshen, IN
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
73.3 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $781
> Median income for single mother household: $18,926
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 27.9%

Accessible early education programs liberate single mothers to enter and maintain employment, while providing children with better chances for academic success. In Elkhart-Goshen, however, just 27.9% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, the fourth smallest such share in the country.

The typical single mother household in Elkhart-Goshen makes just $18,926 a year, much less than the national $24,403 a typical single mother household makes across the country. Similarly, 40.3% of all single mother households in the area live in poverty compared to 30.9% nationwide. Single mothers in Elkhart-Goshen earn less than those in most parts of the country and far less than most other residents in the metro area.

7. McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, TX
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
77.3 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $729
> Median income for single mother household: $15,827
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 38.9%

McAllen-Edinburg-Mission is one of the poorest metro areas in the country, and some of its poorest residents are single mothers. About half of all single mother households live in poverty, and more than half receive food stamps. Much of the poverty in McAllen is concentrated in the suburbs, which further isolates residents from job opportunities and assistance programs. Whereas in other cities public transportation systems help connect the poor with such opportunities, just 0.2% of McAllen workers use public transit to get to work.

The more children in a household, the greater the burden on a single parent. The average household in McAllen led by a single mother has more than four occupants, the eighth largest of any metro area.

6. New Bern, NC
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
93.6 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $882
> Median income for single mother household: $15,858
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 40.8%

The median annual income for a single mother household with children in New Bern is just $15,858. This income is not only much less than the income of single mother households nationwide, but also about one-third of the metro area’s median household income for all households, the third lowest such proportion. With such low incomes, housing in New Bern is hardly affordable for single parent families. The typical single mother would need to work 93.6 hours a week to rent a market priced two-bedroom apartment, one of the longest workweeks of any metro area.

5. Clarksville, TN-KY
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
84.6 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $797
> Median income for single mother household: $18,411
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 34.6%

By measures of income, childcare, and housing affordability, Clarksville is one of worst places for single mothers. The typical single mother household earns just $18,411 annually, about $6,000 less than the median income of single mother households nationwide. Despite Clarksville’s relatively low rent, a single mother would still need to work 84.6 hours a week to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment.

Clarksville’s relatively limited early education system also does little to soften the childcare responsibilities of single motherhood. Just 34.6% of metro area three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, much less than the 47.4% national early education enrollment rate.

4. Salinas, CA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
107.6 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,399
> Median income for single mother household: $24,694
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 40.1%

California is one of only a few states to guarantee paid leave to care for a new child — an indispensable subsidy for single mothers. Despite the parent-friendly state policies, Salinas is one of three California cities identified among the 10 worst for single mothers. In this case, paid leave simply does not outweigh the harms from economic factors working against single mothers in Salinas. Nationwide, 76.0% of single mothers are employed, but only 67.2% are in the Salinas area. While the income and poverty levels for single mothers in Salinas are in line with the national levels, the area housing market is extremely expensive for single mothers. A single mother earning the median wage would need to work more than 100 hours per week to afford the typical rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Salinas.

Further, the typical single mother in Salinas may have even more responsibilities, as the average single mother household size, at more than four, is eighth highest of all metros.

3. Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
123.4 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,604
> Median income for single mother household: $29,121
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 46.4%

While single mothers make somewhat more in Santa Cruz than in many parts of the country, high rents in the metro area make it nearly impossible for them to afford a house of appropriate size. With a median income of $29,121, a single mother with children under 18 in Santa Cruz-Watsonville would need to work 123.4 hours a week to rent an average two-bedroom home.

On a state level, however, California has policies favorable to single parenthood. It is one of three states with guaranteed paid family and medical leave, paying 55% of a worker’s average weekly wage in benefits for up to 52 weeks, depending on the reason for the paid leave. Workers can receive a maximum of $1,129 a week, more than in any other state. With the poor economic conditions, however, these provisions are likely inadequate for many single mothers trying to make ends meet in the Santa Cruz area.

2. Hinesville, GA
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
86.8 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $818
> Median income for single mother household: $16,972
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 33.0%

A typical single mother household in Hinesville earns just $16,972 year, nearly the least of any metro area. With such a low income, a single mother would need to work 86.8 hours a week to afford an average two-bedroom apartment in the area — making the $818 monthly rent for such a place nearly impossible to pay.

Hinesville also lacks the early education system that in other cities is extremely beneficial to single mothers. Early education not only prepares a child for academic success, but also better enables single parents to maintain full-time jobs. In Hinesville, however, just 33.0% of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in school, much less than the 47.4% national share.

1. Urban Honolulu, HI
> Hrs./week for typical single mother to afford rent:
152.4 hours
> Market rent for two-bedroom apt.: $1,985
> Median income for single mother household: $32,257
> Share of 3 and 4 year olds enrolled in school: 51.6%

Hawaii may be considered by many to be a paradise — to be sure, an intangible quality that is difficult to quantify. However, looking at social and economic conditions in the state’s urban center, no metro area is worse for single motherhood than Honolulu. To afford an average two-bedroom apartment in the city, a single mother earning the typical wage would have to work 152.4 hours in a single week, a virtual impossibility even without childcare responsibilities.

While the poverty rate for single mother households in Honolulu of 18.0% is well more than double the rate for all households in the city, it is still one of the lowest in the country compared with single mothers in other areas. For single mothers who live in poverty, incomes are especially low. On average, a single mother household in Honolulu earns income $12,144 below the poverty line, the sixth largest such deficit of U.S. metros.

Methodology:

To determine the best and worst cities for single mothers, 24/7 Wall St. compiled an index of six measures for each U.S. metro area: the median income for a single mother household with children under 18 years old, the share of single mother households in poverty, the average income deficit for single mother households below the poverty line, the share of three- and four-year olds enrolled in school, the share of workers over 16 years old using public transportation to commute, and the number of hours a week a typical single mother would need to work to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent (FMR). FMR is the 40th percentile of gross rents for typical, non-substandard rental units in a given metropolitan statistical area (MSA), and is determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The measures were normalized and organized in four categories — income, early education, public transportation, and housing affordability. The number of hours a week a typical single mother would need to work to afford a two-bedroom apartment at FMR was given double weight, public transit use was given quarter weight, and income, poverty, and average income deficit were averaged and treated as one standard measure.

MSAs for which the margin of error on single mother households at 90% confidence was 10% or greater than the point estimate were excluded. All data, other than the FMR, came from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and are five-year estimates for 2010 to 2014.