Mom on couch with babies

CHEYENNE – During the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly a third of households with two parents and households with a single father lacked confidence in their ability to afford food. But for single moms, that total was 49% – meaning just about half of the women raising kids on their own didn’t know how they’d feed their kids, according to survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The pandemic brought many hardships along with it, but a number of issues hit women, particularly single moms, even harder – including job loss, food insecurity and lack of child-care options. Those struggles, and the struggles faced by all kinds of Wyoming families, were outlined in the COVID-19 and Wyoming Women and Families report, released earlier this month by the Wyoming Women’s Foundation, whose mission is to invest in economic self-sufficiency for women and opportunities for girls.

“Toxic stress levels have certainly increased for families, specifically those with low incomes or those who have lost incomes,” Wyoming Women’s Foundation Director Rebekah Smith said. “Of course, that has an incredible ripple effect. When you’re hungry, it’s very hard to function as well as if your belly is full. It’s hard to do all the things you need to do to keep your family going in the right direction.”

Just as that example describes, the problems caused by the pandemic and the economic downturn are all interconnected.

As an unprecedented number of people were put out of work and saw their hours reduced, unemployment rates increased dramatically, along with the demand for assistance. But in 2020, Wyoming women filed 42% of unemployment claims, compared to 31% in 2019, according to the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services.

“Women are so prevalent in the leisure, retail and hospitality industries, which were hit hard during the pandemic, and so, certainly, a lot of those opportunities for employment dried up during that time,” Smith said.

But a number of women also made the decision to stay home with kids, as schools were closed for in-person learning at the end of 2020, child-care options were slim, and quarantines during in-person schooling required a parent to be at home. Single moms and mothers in multi-parent homes didn’t work for child-care reasons during the pandemic at much higher rates than single dads and fathers in multi-parent homes, according to the Census Bureau’s survey.

As Smith pointed out, that lack of employment also means a lack of benefits, including insurance and retirement contributions.

“That certainly impacts your ability to support yourself in the far future,” she said.

Those problems, for both moms and dads, translated to food insecurity and inability to pay the bills. In total, 38% of single moms, 19% of single dads and 18% of multi-parent homes had little to no confidence in their ability to pay their rent or mortgage, the Census Bureau survey found.

With those challenges also came significant mental health issues, as financial stress can manifest in many different ways, both physical and emotional. In November and December 2020, when COVID-19 cases reached their peak in the community, about 43% of parents said they were struggling with mental health, the survey found.

Still, some people didn’t seek mental health assistance, because “If you can’t afford your rent, you’re not even going to consider going to the doctor,” Smith said.

But looking forward, not all is grim, as the state’s economy bounces back and wages are increasing due to a shortage of workers. Smith has hope that the state will use the American Rescue Plan funds to alleviate some of the problems faced by Wyoming families throughout the pandemic and beyond, specifically access to affordable and high-quality child care.

Additionally, she said Medicaid expansion would help alleviate some of the mental health struggles and general health problems faced by low-income families, who can’t afford a bill from the doctor on top of everything else.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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