Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Single mom Lacey Wilson with her boys, Elijah, 13, and Jonathan, 2.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Single mom Lacey Wilson with her boys, Elijah, 13, and Jonathan, 2.
When Lacey Wilson returns to college full time this winter, there will be no second income from a husband to keep the household afloat. In addition to her studies, Wilson, 39, will be in charge of managing her home, and making sure her four children get what they need.
“There are times that I’m jealous of people who have a dad to help,” Wilson said. “It’s rough and scary, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Recent United States Census data indicate that, in Oregon, nearly 50 percent of single mothers with children under the age of 5 are living at or below the federal poverty line.

There are Catholic organizations that serve teen mothers facing unexpected pregnancies, and organizations like Catholic Charities that serve low-income mothers of infants. However, there are few Catholic services for single mothers with older children.

“There’s a gap in our social support safety net,” said Robin Neal, who manages Catholic Charities’ Pregnancy Support and Adoption Services.

Neal’s program offers financial and social support to mothers during pregnancy and in the first months of their child’s life. But after 8 months, Charities’ staff members can only hope and pray that their efforts helped those new mothers maintain stability.

“In our society, those whose needs get met are the powerful,” Neal said. “Single moms and small children don’t wield any power.”

Wilson turned to Catholic Charities when she discovered she had become pregnant with her youngest son, Jonathan, who is now 2. Her other children are 11, 13, and 17, and without a strong social safety net, Wilson knew she couldn’t do it on her own. Not only did Catholic Charities provide services like baby clothing, the organization also assigned a counselor to help Wilson through personal struggles with substance abuse and depression.

The Catholic commitment to life means helping the vulnerable, Neal said.

“If we’re going to hold firm to our commitment, we need to wrap support around these women,” she said.

According to Neal, one of the biggest barriers for low-income parents in Oregon is access to childcare. A report released in November by the advocacy group Child Care Aware ranked Oregon last in the nation for affordable childcare. The state also ranked lowest in the nation in affordability for infant care, preschool, single mothers and even two-parent households.

The average annual cost of infant care now exceeds $13,400. Compare that to the annual income for a minimum wage worker in Oregon ($18,616) and it becomes clear why nearly half of all single mothers are living at or below the poverty level.

In his role as director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, Matt Cato has encouraged people to be a voice for the voiceless. Not only are Catholics called to direct service, but they also have a political responsibility to advocate for positive change, Cato said. 

“If you’re not there, you have a hole in the center of your work, your mission and your heart,” he said.

Cato hopes to empower Catholic leaders by providing education about vulnerabilities in the social safety net. He sends email blasts with state legislative agendas and related Catholic calls to action, which parishes like St. Mary’s in Eugene print in their weekly bulletin.

“What I love about the Catholic faith is that our answer is ‘yes,’ not ‘either/or’,” Cato said.

“We support the unborn, but we also support giving them a chance to thrive and survive in their lives.”

The first 1,000 days in a child’s life are critical, Cato said. Without proper nutrition and parental support, those children are more likely to fall behind throughout their lives — in education, income, metal illness and criminal activity.

Wilson is among a network of single mothers who are striving to make sure their own little ones don’t fall into those statistics. She has created for herself a two-year plan and hopes to find a job as a social worker to lift her family out of poverty, but also to help other single mothers do the same. In the meantime, she teaches her children to find creative ways to live simply, like baking cookies and candy to give away as Christmas gifts.

“You really can be successful, no matter where you start,” she said.