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Harry Potter at 20: How J G Rowling went from being on welfare to becoming a billionaire magician

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    She’s one of the richest women in the world today, but when she was writing the first Harry Potter book 20 years ago, J.K. Rowling was a struggling single mom on government benefits.

    Rowling’s current net worth is a mystery — she denied in 2005 that she was a billionaire after Forbes anointed her one, and later dropped off the list, in part because of her charitable donations.

    The first Harry Potter book was published in Britain on June 26, 1997 under the name “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and was retitled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” for the U.S. publication in 1998. But, like her bespectacled hero, Rowling’s success sprouted from an unlikely beginning. She has credited Britain’s public benefits system with providing a crucial cushion after she split with her first husband and found herself scrambling to find full-time work.

    Read more: 3 out of 4 American children in families rely on their mothers’ salaries

    “When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s government, was there to break the fall,” Rowling wrote in a 2010 essay called “Single Mother’s Manifesto.”

    The number of women in similar situations has steadily grown in the U.S. over the past few decades. About 23% of American households were headed by single women in 2016, according to the United States Census Bureau. That’s nearly triple the rate in 1960 when just 8% of households were headed by single moms.

    Why 56 million Americans have no bank account: Not what you think

    And, like Rowling did in her early days, those families tend to struggle financially. Households headed by single moms are far more likely to live in poverty than those headed by men or by married parents, according to the National Women’s Law Center. “The poverty rate for female-headed families with children was 36.5%, compared to 22.1% for male-headed families with children and 7.5% of families with children headed by married couples,” the organization said last year.

    When she was writing the first Harry Potter book, Rowling worked a few hours a week doing filing and typing at an Edinburgh church where the minister — a woman — let her bring her daughter to work with her.

    Rowling was stung by the stigmatization she felt as a single mom — one woman at the church where she worked even used to refer to Rowling as “the unmarried mother” within Rowling’s earshot. Her self-esteem eroded during that time, but Rowling has said the experience was ultimately a positive one.

    “I am prouder of my years as a single mother than of any other part of my life,” Rowling wrote in 2010. “Yes, I got off benefits and wrote the first four Harry Potter books as a single mother, but nothing makes me prouder than what [my daughter] Jessica told me recently about the first five years of her life: ‘I never knew we were poor. I just remember being happy.’” Rowling is now president of British charity, Gingerbread, which gives advice to single moms.


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