Abstract: The "True Colors" of Low-Income Single Mothers Kin Networks during COVID-19 (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

The "True Colors" of Low-Income Single Mothers Kin Networks during COVID-19

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 7, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Melissa Radey, PhD, Professor, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Lisa Langenderfer-Magruder, PhD, Program Director, Science & Research, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Kristine Posada, BA, Student, Florida State University, FL
Background: In addition to direct impacts on health and mortality, the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly disrupted basic daily activities, including employment, child care, schooling, and social interactions. Despite government intervention, the pandemic and subsequent shutdown have resulted in increased financial stress and poverty. Low-income, single mothers have experienced disproportionate economic hardship, childcare burden, and stress as primary earners and care providers. Mothers’ high need during COVID-19 coupled with their reliance on informal networks during non-pandemic times raises an important question: how did low-income single mothers’ informal networks operate in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic? Using a social capital perspective, this study’s purpose was to understand how mothers navigate their informal networks and how network operation contributes to social and economic (in)equity among vulnerable families during economic downturns.

Methodology: We collected data in a single, mid-size county in North Florida from low-income, unmarried mothers in June and July of 2020 (N=34). We recruited mothers from social services organizations, social media platforms, and the local food bank. The interview guide explored mothers’ lives pre- and post-COVID-19 including mothers’ decision-making processes about interacting with, relying on, and providing for informal network members. Mothers completed two interviews approximately four weeks apart. Each interview lasted, on average, 75 minutes. We used Braun and Clarke’s (2006) six-phase, thematic analysis to analyze patterns in the data.

Findings: Thematic analysis uncovered 4 inter-related themes of mothers’ experiences: (1) discovering emotionally-available networks, (2) navigating resource-limited networks, (3) reassessing network member relationships, and (4) establishing boundaries for in-person contact. Widely-available emotional support was welcomed and essential to mothers. Yet, mothers perceived the financial limits of their networks and typically withheld requests for money unless under dire circumstances (e.g., homeless, inadequate clothing for children). Although mothers were quick to voice their financial limitations, several mothers realized their contributions as the “glue” to their networks. Their support often translated to checking on older relatives through virtual, telephone, or face-to-face contact. The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact and its impact on time use tested network relationships with some relationships strengthening and others dissolving. Although emotionally valuable, low-income, single mothers’ networks could not meet their increased economic and child care needs in the midst of the pandemic.

Conclusions and Implications: The study provides three central contributions to the literature in understanding low-income networks: (1) despite limited financial support, widely-available emotional support was essential to mothers adapting to the pandemic; (2) the COVID-19 pandemic tested network relationships—some relationships strengthened while others—at least temporarily—dissolved; and (3) rules about contact, regardless of stringency, comforted mothers in their decisions to engage with network members. While useful, kin networks cannot be relied upon to provide a safety net for basic needs to low-income mothers. A stronger U.S. public safety net (e.g., suspended work requirements and time limits; raised asset limits) during economic downturns may be a critical tool to protect families from hardship and promote well-being.