Think back to when you were in elementary school, to the time when you were a little girl or a little boy in the second or third grade. Think about your mother, or perhaps your grandmother, or maybe it was a foster mom who might have raised you. Did your mother work in a full-time job outside the home to help pay the family bills? Chances are, less than half of the moms of today’s adults did.
Now, let’s imagine a room full of second- or third-graders — the kids who go to school today, throughout the Seattle area. How many would be the sons and daughters of dual working parents? Of single employed mothers? Or of jobless mothers looking for work, and hoping beyond hope that they won’t lose their cars or their homes or their health insurance?
The fact is, in the United States today, about two-thirds of all mothers of school-age children are working outside the home. Compare that to 1967, when only slightly more than one-quarter of moms were in the workforce. Today, a home with a husband as the only breadwinner accounts for less than one of every five families. Mothers are co-breadwinners in two-thirds of marriages, and one of every three working moms today are the only wage-earner in their families.
Women as a whole — whether they have children at home or not — now comprise fully half of all working Americans. Economist Heather Boushey of the Center for American Progress, in her essay for the report, “A Women’s Nation Changes Everything,” calls the movement of women into the labor force “not just enduring, but certifiably revolutionary … and perhaps the greatest social transformation of our time.”
There are many who may wish to argue the social implications of this change, whether it is a “good” or a “bad” thing. But I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about women as mothers and workers, as those who support their families and their communities, as those who have the power to rise above remarkable challenges and, in doing so, to ignite an economic recovery that will benefit us all.
There’s no doubt the recession has taken its toll on everyone, no matter what their gender or family structure. But for working women — especially single mothers in the labor force — it’s been especially harsh. In August, the unemployment rate for single mothers stood at 13.4 percent, compared to an overall national rate of 9.5 percent. And employment is even higher, at 17.5, percent for mothers with children under the age of six, who face the difficulty of paying for child care not only after they find a job but when they’re looking for one, too.
And things aren’t getting any easier. According to the U.S. Labor Department, in the months between October 2009 and March 2010, women lost 22,000 jobs while men gained 260,000.
A living wage job — one that provides a worker with enough income to shelter, feed, clothe and care for her family — is out of reach for many people in our community. One in every three children lives in a family that is finding it difficult to make ends meet on a daily basis. About 10 percent of King County residents live in poverty. Still more are struggling, earning 50 percent or less of King County media income.
And, it’s still harder for women than men to earn a living wage. According to a study by the Women’s Funding Alliance, women in the Puget Sound region earn 75 cents for every dollar earned by men. Incredible as it sounds in a state where we pride ourselves on our enlightenment, Washington ranks 42nd in the nation in equality of earnings between women and men. Adding to women’s economic challenges is that they are also more likely than men to take on financial responsibility for others, such as caring for aging parents, and typically have less savings to fall back on during hard times.
The vast majority of those living below poverty level are “the working poor” — those who have a job, but not one that pays them enough to live on. A recent report by the U.S. Labor Department has more bad news for these low-income and even middle-class workers, predicting that the new jobs that will be created over the next decade are expected to be low-paying service jobs or high-paying positions requiring advanced degrees or highly specialized skills.
Our experience at the YWCA puts to rest the myth that low-income people are content to get by on welfare or handouts. More than 20,000 people come to us each year to improve their basic education, train for new skills, search for jobs, prepare for interviews, or find work clothing so they can “dress for success.” People want to work. They want to take care of themselves and their children. Some of them just need their community’s help so they can eventually stand on their own.
What else is contributing to the challenges that women are facing today? In much of the Puget Sound region, the high cost of housing is a monumental barrier to a family’s ability to thrive or even to survive. The lack of affordable housing is a leading cause of homelessness. Conservatively estimated, there are more than 3,300 homeless families with children in King County.
Even when low-income families can manage to hang onto a place where they can afford to live, they often face agonizing trade-offs because they are paying way too high a percentage of their income on housing. Their children may go without medical care, they may live in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, or they may even forgo food in order to pay the rent. Many are one paycheck, one needed surgery, one family emergency away from homelessness.
Some 50 percent of all renters in King County cannot afford the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment and nearly 60,000 very-low-income households are paying more than 30 percent of their income for housing, putting them in jeopardy of becoming homeless.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is around $900. A single mom with three children needs to earn roughly $20 an hour — or $38,000 a year — to afford that. Yet minimum wage in Washington state is less than $9 an hour. In East King County, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $1,300 a month. A single mom with three children needs to earn roughly $25 dollars an hour, or $52,000 a year, to afford it. Yet, about 15 percent of Eastside families earn less than $40,000 dollars a year.
The YWCA shared these facts recently with a group of people, and one of them said, innocently and without malice, “Why don’t they just live somewhere else?” But it’s not that simple. Imagine taking three, four, even five different buses to get from your home in far South King County to your job as a home health worker in Bellevue. Child-care costs to cover the four-hour round-trip commute would eat up a mother’s pay in no time. And we want those who provide us with critical services — our young teachers, our health care workers, our police officers — to live and work in our community.
Sadly, women also are prevented from supporting themselves and achieving their potential by the vestiges of racism that persist in our society today. That’s not to say that we blame individuals, today, in our community who are racist. Although, again sadly, those individuals still exist. But long-standing practices and persistent inequities in both the public and private sectors still remain, and they still place unfair burdens on communities of color as well as on low-income communities.
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