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The Power of One: Why do single women tend to fare better in FSS programs than their married counterparts?

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

By Alexandra Metz

In San Diego, the Access to Opportunity project is engaged in a comparative analysis of three programs that are part of the Achievement Academy at the San Diego Housing Commission. As part of the Family Self Sufficiency (FSS) program, the Achievement Academy offers workshops and counseling, as well as outside referrals, to assist with a multitude of issues including budgeting, parenting skills, job procurement, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, welfare eligibility, and more. Like most housing authorities providing FSS, the San Diego Housing Commission provides participants with an escrow account, and the average San Diego participant earns $6,800 by graduation. Participants can earn additional deposits by meeting milestones that might include employment, earning a degree or credential, or gaining independence from some form of public assistance. In addition to following families who are participants in the general Achievement Academy, Access to Opportunity researchers are engaging with families that take part in specialized programs for the recently homeless, and families taking part in a new cohort program designed specifically for single mothers, called the Power of One program.

Past research suggests that many variables contribute to the efficacy of services like the FSS program, and a number of personal characteristics may help predict individual success in such program. Social service programs have a documented history of encouraging and even incentivizing marriage for recipients, driven no doubt by the substantial data showing that being unmarried is linked to higher rates of poverty, particularly when it comes to families with children. Married couples are less likely to require assistance, and unmarried individuals utilize services at a higher rate. In 2015, 5% of married couples were living below the poverty line, compared to 15% of single male households and 28% of single female households[i]. Children of single parents are more likely to live in poverty and be at higher risk for other negative outcomes associated with poverty, such as poor health and dropping out of school[ii].

However, the relationship between marital status and participant success appears to be more complex than one might initially assume. Contemporary data suggest a negative relationship between marriage and graduation success for FSS participants[iii]. A University of Iowa study found that unmarried individuals were significantly more likely to graduate from FSS than were married or divorced individuals. The majority of participants in the study were women, and the rate of FSS graduation markedly decreased for women who had a male adult in their household, compared to those who were single[iv]. With this data in mind, we are particularly interested in understanding the experiences of single women in FSS. With so much research and public policy pointing to marriage as a benefit for low-income families, why do single women tend to fare better in FSS programs than their married counterparts?

In the City of San Diego, the San Diego Housing Commission’s Power of One program provides researchers an opportunity to further examine the relationship between single parenting, poverty, and FSS success. In the Power of One program, single mothers participate in FSS as a cohort. Participants have access to the standard FSS services and workshops in addition to regular group meetings with their cohort. They also receive supplementary services such as opportunities for summer programs for participants’ children, literacy classes, and childcare.

In other studies, single low-income women share their perspectives on relationships and marriage. Men—former partners—are often described as not contributing to the household, and single women interviewees question why a woman receiving assistance would choose to cohabitate with a man. In this interpretation, remaining single can be considered an economic decision that allows women more opportunities to accumulate wealth and potentially rise out of poverty, without having to share already scant resources with another potentially low-income adult[v]. This provides one possible explanation for why low-income women might choose to be single, but does not necessarily account for why single women find greater success in self-sufficiency programs.

Looking at interview data from members of the San Diego Housing Commission’s Power of One program, we see a high drive for success within female-headed households, and our interview participants express some reasons they believe they fare better without men at home. Some of the insights provided by female heads-of-household echo findings in past research. One interviewee describes her ex-partner as “lazy”, which was her justification for kicking him out of her home. Another shared her belief that many women on Section 8 must live alone, or pretend to live without their male partner, due to the partner’s criminal record or some other issue that could bar them from housing assistance. In our research we work to value these women’s lived experiences, while acknowledging that structural barriers to opportunity often prevent low-income men from being able to contribute to households in the ways they would like.

It is also worth considering the personal characteristics and circumstances of Power of One participants, as some may be markers of later FSS success. The majority of the women interviewed are in their mid to late 20s and early 30s and despite facing many challenges, the majority were employed at the time of their first interview. One interviewee spoke at length about her desire to start her own business and the ways in which the FSS program can support that goal while others expressed a desire to pursue higher education with the help of FSS. Finally, several of the women described a close, supportive relationship with their FSS caseworker—a relationship which appeared to be quite meaningful to many of the interviewees.

The interviews also highlight some of the struggles that single, female FSS participants may face. The majority of the Power of One interview subjects cited accessing childcare as a significant obstacle, particularly in relation to maintaining stable employment. Many also discussed difficulty with transportation as a major challenge, along with obstacles such as past homelessness and personal or family illness and disability. Three women further shared that they suffer from considerable anxiety or other emotional issues due to stress brought on by work, finances, or family.

As we move forward with the study and pursue follow-up interviews with our participants, we will look for markers of FSS success and also probe further to uncover specific characteristics, situations, and practices that benefit Power of One participants. If female heads-of-household are having greater success and a higher rate of graduation from FSS programs than their peers, this study may help us learn how to replicate that success for more groups, and how to support more low-income women through similar models.


Marlyn Carillo and Dr. Shawn Flanigan contributed to this blog



[i] U.S. Census Bureau (2016). Historical Poverty Tables: People and Families – 1959 to 2015. Retrieved June 25, 2017, from

[ii] Parke, M. (2003). Are Married Parents Really Better for Children? What Research Says About the Effects of Family Structure on Child Well-Being. Center for Law and Social Policy.

[iii] Anthony, J. (2005). Family Self Sufficiency Programs: An evaluation of program benefits and factors affecting participants’ success. Urban Affairs Review 41(1), 65-92.

[iv] Anthony 2005

[v] Anthony 2005; Edin, K. (2000). What Do Low-Income Single Mothers Say About Marriage? Social Problems 47(1), 112-133; Hess, S. C. (1990). The Effect of Employment and Welfare on Family Structure: Explaining the Time Trend of Female-Headed Families. American Economist 34(1), 76-82.



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