Photograph by Steven Higgs

Like most single mothers, Laura Hannum lives life on the economic edge every day, even though she can meet her son's Sam basic needs. She lives paycheck-to-paycheck and is luckier than most female heads of household, more than one-third of whom nationwide live in poverty.

Laura Hannum is one of Monroe County's estimated 2,800 single mothers with children under 18. But she doesn't count herself among the nearly one-third of them who, according to 2006 Census data, live in poverty.

Hannum has an education, a good job and a career. She also has a house and an ex-husband she can count on for support -- financial and parental.

Her 8-year-old son Sam is healthy, and so is she. They have private health insurance. And she has quality, affordable child care for her son while she works 40 hours a week. She even has options for his care.

"I have the things that I need," the 35-year-old paralegal says. "I just don't necessarily have the things I want."


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The list of things Hannum wants is modest, and surely not inclusive.

She mentions toys for Sam, taking him to the movies and on vacations. For herself: the resources for a social life beyond hanging out with friends and renting movies. She goes out for dinner every once in a while, or she goes to a club. "I can't do both," she says. "It's pick and choose."

While Hannum could do without the monotony, debt and financial struggles that comes from living paycheck-to-paycheck, she accepts them as part of the sacrifices single mothers must make, even those who have what they need.

"When you're a single parent, you work, and you raise your child," she says. "And you work, and you raise your child."

***

Prior to her August 2005 separation from Sam's father, Hannum had never really seen herself struggling to overcome debt as she approached midlife.

"I probably envisioned myself still married, maybe with another kid," she said.

She always assumed she'd have a partner and live comfortably, as she had growing up.

"I went through some really tough times right there when I was separating and going through my divorce," she recalls. "That was probably the scariest time of my life. What am I going to do? How am I going to support myself? I've never really had to be dependent solely on me."

After she graduated from IU in the fall 1995 with a degree in general studies, Hannum worked as a teaching assistant at Head Start in Bloomington, a federally funded education program that serves low-income, pre-school children.

Her goal had always been to become a "lead teacher," which at the time required a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate, which she obtained from Ivy Tech Community College. Head Start paid for her classes.

But when Sam was born in August 1999, Hannum left Head Start to labor as a stay-at-home mother until he enrolled in kindergarten.

Immediately after the separation in 2005, she considered enrolling in a graduate program at IU related to her educational interests. But that meant anywhere from 18 months to two years in school and going $10,000 in debt, if not more.

All of that investment to land a job that would most likely pay in the mid-$20,000 range, she says, "just didn't make much sense to me."


Photograph by Steven Higgs

Child care is perhaps the most critical element in a single mother's life, along with health care.

As her divorce progressed, Hannum became interested in the law and took more classes at Ivy Tech, this time in the Paralegal Studies Program. She landed a position as a paralegal with her divorce lawyer, for whom she still works today.

"A paralegal can do just about anything a lawyer can do, with the exception of give legal advice, represent people in court and establish attorney-client relationships," she says.

Hannum's family underwrote her undergraduate degree. She paid for her paralegal education with "loans, credit cards, etc.," she says. "All in all it was close to $4,000."

***

"Creative" is a term Hannum uses often while describing life as a single mom in Bloomington. She works within walking distance of the Courthouse Square in Bloomington but lives in a "cookie-cutter" subdivision in Ellettsville, where housing is more affordable.

"You have to be creative," she says matter-of-factly. "... It takes a parent to be really creative."

Food shopping requires careful planning and a nearly etched-in-granite list. Hannum quotes Sam to explain the strategy: "That's a bonus buy, mom. Does that mean we can get it?"

The food plan, however, has become more challenging, budgetwise, she says. "I've noticed that it's gone up considerably the past couple months."

Transportation is likewise taxing. She drives the 25-mile-or-so round trip in a 1998 Subaru Legacy with 141,000 miles. She owns the car outright, but she quickly lists the many several-hundred-dollar repairs she's faced -- alternator, axle, CV joints, tune-up and timing belt.

"I don't have a car payment," she laughs. "I have a credit card-payment."


"I love MCUM because they do go by your income. It's affordable."
- - Laura Hannum, single mother


Hannum drives to work but walks to the bank, the Justice Building and the Post Office to accomplish her professional and personal responsibilities. She grimaced when informed that the Post Office is leaving downtown.

She minimizes the number of miles she drives, stopping on her way to and from work to shop and run errands, rather than driving separately when she's not so tired.

"That's the way I have to organize my life in order to save money on gas," she says.

Toys for Sam, aside from the odd $7 slip 'n slide, are "basically left up to the grandparents and family. Christmas and things like that."

Clothing comes from second-hand stores, yard sales, neighbors and clearance racks.

"It's amazing what you can find on the clearance racks," she says. "You just have to be creative with it."

Home entertainment and furnishings: "I still have a TV from, 1995?" she says. "Remember the ghetto blasters? That's my radio and CD player, from like the mid-90s."

A $50 DVD player, "already wearing out from Netflix," requires mom's "magic touch" to play. "I can't afford to get a new DVD player."

"All my furniture are hand-me-downs. I don't have any new furniture."

***

Hannum knows how "extremely lucky" she is when it comes to the two biggest cares single mothers struggle with: health care and child care.

During the school year Sam stays at school in an extended day program that costs her $25 a week to have him in a safe environment until she gets off work.

Hannum says she considered a lot of summer programs, and the Monroe County United Ministries (MCUM) "was definitely my first choice." Sam has been in the summer program since he was 6. Program fees are based on parents' ability to pay.

"I love MCUM because they do go by your income," she says. "It's affordable."

Each day Sam gets breakfast lunch and snacks. He goes on field trips and swims everyday.

"He loves it," Hannum says. "I don't think you can beat what I get for him there."


"When you're a single parent, you work, and you raise your child. And you work, and you raise your child."
- Laura Hannum, single mother


Her employer also offers child care that Hannum occasionally draws upon, but the children there are infants.

Contemplating the 50 families that are on MCUM's summer waiting list and the classroom rendered empty by recent government budget cuts, Hannum shudders at the thought of losing her child care.

"I don't know what I would do in the summertime," she says. "I honestly don't know what I'd do."

Hannum has private health insurance through a policy with Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield that she has had since 1999. It has a high deductible, but it is affordable.

"It's decent insurance," she says, adding, "I am fortunate that I have a very healthy child. And I am healthy. We have routine physicals once a year. And that's about it."

She says she's never really thought about some sort of catastrophic medical emergency.

"I'd hope that the hospital would take my insurance and then, credit," she says. "What else can you do? Fortunately I have decent credit, but I'm sure that could run out."

***

Credit, a marketing term for debt, is a fact of life for single mothers, a daily reminder that one illness, an accident or the loss of a job is all that stands between them and poverty. Nationally, 37 percent of single-mother households lived in poverty in 2006, according to the Census.

"I've considered getting a part-time job just to pay off my debt, because at this moment I think that is the only solution to that problem," Hannum says.

The debt precludes progress on her larger goal -- being able to help with Sam's education, like her parents did with hers.

"That requires putting money back and saving, and when you live paycheck to paycheck ...," she says. "I may not be able to offer him that much."

Maybe in a few years, after she's in her profession a little longer, she says. "There's always that possibility. Right now, I don't know."

But Hannum is acutely aware that her generation's future will be markedly different from her parents', that living on a single paycheck each week may mean working till the end.

"We'll be lucky if we even have Social Security," she says. "My biggest fear? Retirement. I'd like to be able to retire."

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.