Rebecca Lookingbill knows the bills are important. But her children are important, too.
“[Justin] has been asking about basketball, but I’m trying to figure out, will I have enough money to put him in a basketball camp and still afford the bills?”
The mother of two — a 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son — has spent the last six years providing for her family by herself. The years have included tough choices — choices such as spending on things her kids need to survive or spending on things her kids need to just be kids.
“There’s a lot of, what’s the old saying, ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul,’” the 32-year-old Frederick resident said. “There’s a lot of that, definitely juggling a lot to figure out what bill needs to be paid over another one.”
Living in Frederick is not easy for single-parent families — like Lookingbill’s — and the population in the county is growing.
Local family structures are shifting slower than those across the United States. According to census data, more than 1 in 4 households in 2017 were single-parent homes. In Frederick County, the ratio was about 1 in 5, but the prevalence of single-parent homes has grown in the last 10 years.
Single parents face a variety of challenges that households with two incomes and two adults present are able to weather more easily. A lone parent must balance the role of provider, disciplinarian and fun caretaker. Shari Ostrow Scher, founder of Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership, works with families who have been separated by the criminal justice system. One of the biggest challenges for single parents is finances, she said.
“When you’re the only one responsible, it can be really tough,” Ostrow Scher said. “You’ve got to be working. You’ve got to find your child care. You’ve got to be responsible for that child’s homework at night. You’ve got to get the dinner on the table.”
Lookingbill became a single parent in 2012, after the birth of her son. Even with a job at United Healthcare, she could not pay all her bills. She and her two children moved in with her parents. They have been living “on top of each other,” which can be stressful and force discussions about what the family is going through.
These discussions usually happen between mother and daughter. While the conversations are not easy, Lookingbill said, she tries to teach her to be grateful for what they do have.
“She recognizes now that just because her friends have all the nicest things doesn’t mean that she is going to get those things,” Lookingbill said. “I’d rather her know that her mom is working her butt off to give her what she does have.”
In Frederick, single parents are more likely to be financially unstable. The United Way’s recent Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed report found that 74 percent of single-female homes and 55 percent of single-male homes in Frederick County cannot afford a basic survival budget. A single parent of one school-aged child has to make $51,852 a year, or $25.93 an hour, to meet the local cost of living.
Financial struggles have not always been tied to single-income homes. American families survived for decades on the income of one adult. In 1960, 70 percent of married couples with children lived off just the income of the father.
Today in Frederick County, 7,654 homes are led by a lone female, according to 2017 census data. These female leaders earn 1.29 percent less — or $17,300 less a year, based on an average local salary — than their male counterparts and are less likely to own their home. The most recent census data found 59.5 percent of single-female households owned their homes, compared with 68.6 percent of single-male households and 86.7 percent of married households.
When Lookingbill began looking for a house, she found market rates nearly twice her budget. She was angry, she said. She had spent years building up her credit and got approved for a loan, but still could not afford to live in the place that had been home for decades.
According to a 2016 report, Frederick County has 11,000 affordable housing units less than the county needs. Lookingbill looked for available programs to help first-time homebuyers, but did not qualify for many of them because she earned more than the various guidelines many social programs use, such as the federal poverty line.
Lookingbill did qualify for Habitat for Humanity of Frederick County’s requirements, which the organization changed this summer to respond to growing local needs. The maximum income for its home-building program moved to 80 percent of the average median income, or up to $77,450 a year for a family of four. Participants help build the house, which they purchase with a low down payment and a low-interest loan.
Habitat for Humanity is not the only local organization reevaluating its services to meet changing needs. When the Marriage Resource Center of Frederick County opened in 2005, it focused its services on improving communications and relationships for engaged or married couples. Shelley Aloi, executive director, said the center has seen a change in the types of families needing help in the community in the past few years.
“We have since adapted our services to meet the needs of the changing demographic by adding programming oriented toward healthy relationships [for single parents],” she said.
Service providers said that while the financial help available to single parents is stretched, there is often little help for the emotional needs of parents. Raising a child is more than a financial burden, Ostrow Scher said. Parents pay for the gas to transport their children, but the stress of balancing schedules also takes a toll. A parent on their own faces that burden alone.
Lookingbill credits her family and friends for getting her through the difficult moments of being a single parent. Her social network was a benefit of living in the place where she grew up.
“Without them, I don’t know where we would’ve been,” Lookingbill said.
In October, Lookingbill and her two children will move into their new home in Brunswick, which they helped build. Finally having a home of their own “means everything,” Lookingbill said.
“It’s finally a stable house for the kids, our own space,” she said. “We’re counting down the days.”