Spotlight Exclusives

Our Nation Must Aim Higher to Address the Barriers Confronting Low-Income Women, By Shelley A. Davis, vice president of programs and advocacy, Chicago Foundation for Women, and Surina Khan, vice president of programs, the Women’s Foundation of California

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In the coming months, Congress and the Obama Administration will have a chance to get it right when it comes to addressing the problems faced by millions of low-income women and their families.

Past programs and policies have not done enough to help low-income women move out of poverty. To avoid repeating those mistakes, the current national focus on job creation, training and education must include a discussion about how to develop new and different opportunities to help women to aim higher and create a more promising future.

Low-income women have been hit especially hard by the recession. In March 2010, the unemployment rate for women who maintain families was 11.3 percentthe highest rate in the past 25 years. By comparison, the unemployment rate for all women was 8.6 percent; for married men it was 8.1 percent and for married women it was 6.7 percent. Women of color have been especially hard hit. The unemployment rate for white women in March 2010 was 7.3 percent, compared with 12 percent for Hispanic/Latina women and 12.4 percent for African-American women.

With both Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Workforce Investment Act due for reauthorization, Congress has an opportunity to strengthen two of the nation۪s largest programs for low-income women and their families. Specifically, the emphasis of these programs should be on helping women improve their skills and education rather than being pushed into any available jobno matter how low-paying or lacking in career potential. Additionally, federal efforts should support programs that combine on-the-job experience with services that help low-income women overcome barriers to employment, including the need for child care, lack of transportation and tenuous housing.

Philanthropic and private entities have key roles to play. Through our work with women۪s foundations in our communities, we know what strategies work best locally and could be replicated nationally.

For example, programs that help low-income women navigate the obstacles to higher education can be highly effective in moving women out of poverty. LIFETIME, a San Leandro, California-based nonprofit (and grant partner of the Women۪s Foundation of California), provides counseling to women seeking college degrees while receiving public assistance through the state۪s TANF program (CalWORKS). LIFETIME۪s peer counselors help their clients qualify to stay in school despite caseworkers who typically press them to take any job, regardless of pay and growth potential. The peer counselors become advocates for LIFETIME۪s clients and train the women how to advocate for themselves. Overall, 90 percent of the mothers who go through the program graduate from college and land jobs in their field of study, earning between $18 and $55 per hour. Others have gone on to earn master۪s degrees and doctorates.

Transitional employment programs that provide job experience while offering hands-on support and training have also shown success in launching low-income women into steady work. Bright Endeavors, a grantee of Chicago Foundation for Women, operates a candle-making business to provide young women, ages 16 to 25, with the guidance necessary to develop a successful work history, focusing on skills like teamwork and communications. The women learn how to make Bright Endeavor۪s line of eco-friendly candles and to work as a team, while receiving hands-on personal support and one-on-one coaching and job placement.

This past year we started the Women۪s Economic Security Campaign (WESC) with other women۪s foundations across the country to ensure that the problems faced by women living in poverty and their families are at the center of efforts to fix our nation۪s economy. In a report released by WESC last week (May 5) Aiming Higher: Removing Barriers to Education, Training and Jobs for Low-income Women we offer the following strategies for helping women achieve more promising futures for themselves and their children:

  • Connect women to programs and services that make education or employment possible. Supports in areas like child care, transportation, housing and health services are critical for single, low-income mothers struggling to balance work, training or education, and family responsibilities. When these supports fall through, low-income students and workers are likely to drop out of school or quit their jobs.
  • Provide women with more work and training opportunities. Limited previous work experience and opportunities for on-the-job training pose a major barrier to low-income women hoping to improve their future employment options.
  • Increase opportunity by focusing on employer needs. In order to increase economic security, we need to support programs that tie training and education to actual jobs. More and better jobs are also needed in the low-income neighborhoods where these women live so they are not forced to rely on complicated transportation and child-care arrangements to hold down jobs many miles from home.

As a nation, we need to aim higher. For too long we have settled for too little when it comes to the lives of millions of low-income mothers. It is not enough to create programs and services if we do not provide the guidance and support these women need to access them. We cannot assume we۪ve done our job as a nation if we have simply funneled women off of public assistance and into low-paying, dead-end jobs with no hope for a better future.

As we emerge from the worst economic crisis in generations, we have a chance to rethink the status quo and develop policies that will set low-income women, and our nation as a whole, on a more promising path. Government leaders, as well as the philanthropic community and private entities, must help lead the way.

Shelley A. Davis is vice president of programs and advocacy for the Chicago Foundation for Women. Surina Khan is vice president of programs for the Women’s Foundation of California

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