Q&A: How Minnesota can help single mothers and their children

By: - July 19, 2021 5:00 am

Ally Hanten Ebert became the executive director of the Jeremiah Program’s Rochester campus in March 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Jeremiah Program)

Ally Hanten Ebert says her ultimate goal is to work herself out of a job.

Ebert stepped into her role as executive director of the nonprofit Jeremiah Program’s Rochester campus in March 2021. She hopes that one day the program, which provides housing for low-income single moms pursuing college degrees, will be obsolete.

“If we’re effective in our mission, eventually we won’t need programs like Jeremiah because there won’t be single moms in poverty,” Ebert said. “But that’s a lofty mission, and it’s going to be a lot of hard work.”

A priest launched the program in Minneapolis in 1993 after noticing that many of his congregants were impoverished single moms. It’s since expanded to six locations from Austin, Texas to Boston, Massachusetts. The program has also shed the religious affiliation, but Hebert said the goal remains the same: To end the cycle of poverty for single moms and their children.

Before the pandemic, nearly one-third of single moms were living below the poverty line — double the rate of single dads, and more than three times the rate of married parents, according to Pew Research. COVID-19 was especially hard on single mothers, who were disproportionately likely to lose their jobs and had to shoulder additional child care duties alone.

The program’s Rochester campus is the organization’s largest, with 40 apartments for moms working towards a degree. It served 260 families across the nation in 2019, and 24 mothers graduated from college that year, according to the program’s annual report.

The Reformer talked with Ebert about the program’s work, the effects of the pandemic and how Minnesota could improve outcomes for single moms.

Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

It sounds like there’s a lot going on within the Jeremiah Program, especially since there’s campuses across the country. Tell me more about the program’s work in Minnesota and specifically your work at the Rochester campus.

What makes Jeremiah really unique is the mission of barrier reduction. Disproportionately we see single, female head-of-households in poverty. I get a lot of questions asking, what about the dads? Dads are super important, but we want to address that disproportionality that we see with single moms, recognizing that we need to throw the lifeline to them to help them find their way out of poverty.

These moms are making really tough decisions between going to school to advance their careers or working to provide for their families, and they’re almost always choosing to provide for their children. Jeremiah reduces barriers so parents can execute their dreams and goals.

When we can navigate those challenges together, the likelihood of success increases. That’s where our staff come in. All the moms that live on campus are assigned a family coach to help them build out goals, tap into their strengths and walk alongside them.

We also have an on-site child development center. It’s child care, which is super important, but the primary goal is to help our kids to get kindergarten ready. We know that if they’re prepared for kindergarten, they’re more likely to read proficiently by third grade, which is linked to higher graduation rates in college.

It’s all cyclical, and it’s all related. When we can take that multi-generational approach, we have the best outcomes for helping families elevate out of poverty.

The Jeremiah Program’s Rochester location is the largest campus, with 40 apartment units for families. (Photo courtesy of the Jeremiah Program)

How did the pandemic affect the Jeremiah Program?

Jeremiah’s Rochester campus opened in July 2020, so moms moved in the middle of the pandemic. One of the pillars Jeremiah really strives for is building social connections and networks — all parents rely on a village of some kind.

That pillar becomes really difficult during a time when people are supposed to stay apart. It’s a struggle to build a community when you can’t connect in natural ways. We were so amazed at how our moms found opportunities to connect and support one another in the midst of the pandemic. But that was one of the things that we felt the hardest and that moms felt the hardest — the isolation that everybody experienced at some level.

We’re super grateful coming out of the pandemic that with more people getting vaccinated, our moms have been able to physically connect. We’ve seen the shift, with bonds really strengthening.

What could Minnesota do to better support single moms and their families?

One of the things that we believe in very strongly at Jeremiah is universal child care. Many parents have been in situations where maybe your kid is sick, and you have to miss work. If your job isn’t flexible or you don’t have paid leave, you might risk losing your job for that. When you have free, high-quality child care, it alleviates a lot of barriers for single parents.

There’s state child care assistance, which is great but pays a fraction of what actual child care costs. That’s a hard option — some child care centers won’t take child care assistance because it doesn’t cover the cost of their work, so it limits access and options for families on child care assistance.

Then the flip side of that is how the child is doing in child care. Physically watching a child is great and sometimes that’s all you can get, but we want our kids to be in an environment where they’re learning and playing, so they can be ready for kindergarten. It sets them up for advancing their education.

To me, it’s one of those key things where if we could provide that to all families regardless of income levels, it could allow all our children to start on the same foot, which isn’t what we’re afforded in the current system. When we invest in prevention, we save on intervention.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn is a Minnesota native and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.

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