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Mr. President: Here's some straight talk about women and the recession

Unemployment among single mothers stands at 13.4 percent. An advocate reveals that and other provocative facts, as Obama targets women while stumping for Sen. Murray.

Sue Sherbrooke

Sue Sherbrooke YWCA Seattle-King-Snohomish

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.


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