Rochelle Jackson, a single mother of four children, works in welfare advocacy for Pittsburgh nonprofit Just Harvest. She has two other part-time jobs and is working to complete a master's in business administration at Carlow University. (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

Rochelle Jackson, a single mother of four children, works in welfare advocacy for Pittsburgh nonprofit Just Harvest. She has two other part-time jobs and is working to complete a master’s in business administration at Carlow University. (Photo by Ohad Cadji)

Rochelle Jackson had three kids and was pregnant with a son. She was also scared. Her boyfriend, the father of her children, had grown increasingly abusive during her pregnancy.

It was 1998 when she decided to press charges for physical and sexual assault, and her boyfriend went to jail. She was finally free, but now she was on her own with a growing family.

She quit her full-time job as a records clerk at St. Clair Hospital in the suburbs southwest of Pittsburgh. It paid well — about $12 an hour — and she was proud of having gotten it after earning a health information associate’s degree while raising her children.

But the trauma of abuse was haunting her; she worried about the health of her unborn baby and wanted to focus on caring for her other children.

In 2000, she met with a caseworker to apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the formal name for welfare. But she was surprised to find the caseworker judging her clothes and manicure.

“There’s an assumption of, ‘You’re beneath me; you’re guilty; you’re lying about something.’ You’re made to feel like a criminal when you haven’t done anything wrong,” said Jackson, who just turned 45. That unborn baby is now 16, about to be a junior at McKeesport Area High School.

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Single moms — of whom there are at least 318,500 in Pennsylvania alone — have become a scapegoat for a variety of social problems. Their children are presumed to inevitably face bleak futures simply because they aren’t part of a nuclear family.

The stereotypical narrative is rooted in a damning Venn diagram that overlaps race, gender, and class. A significant share of single mothers and women of color hold minimum-wage jobs without stable work schedules or sick days. Many come from families without means, so grandparents can’t readily step in to help with raising the children.

And, for many like Jackson, who dropped out of college when she had her first child, it’s a challenge to get an education while raising children and holding down a job.

“‘I want to be poor. I want to be on welfare.’ Nobody says that,” Jackson said. She currently holds a full-time job with Just Harvest, two part-time jobs, and is working on a master’s in business administration at Carlow University.

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