In this article, we examine the social networks of low-income mothers, using a conceptual framework that differentiates social networks that offer support from those that yield leverage. This ethnographic analysis pays particular attention to how respondents generate social capital to obtain resources for survival and social mobility. Respondents identified at least three issues beyond resource constraints that work alone or in combination to positively or negatively influence their use of family as sources of social support: physical proximity, reciprocity, and family tensions. We also explore the conditions under which respondents generate social support through friendships and non-profit institutions. We find that social capital that improves opportunities for upward mobility can be obtained from relationships that provide advice, contacts, and encouragement to get ahead. We also find that social support and social leverage networks can work in tandem or in tension to allow (or preclude) day-to-day survival and mobility. Social support networks can inhibit social mobility by enforcing time-consuming and professionally limiting expectations on women. The size and heterogeneity of the network becomes important in such instances.

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