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.

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Sue Sherbrooke

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.

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.

In King County, 29.1 percent of African-Americans live below the poverty level; 9.9 percent of whites do. People of color are hit disproportionately by homelessness: They account for three out of 10 families overall in King County, but eight out of 10 homeless families. And statewide, 12.9 percent of African-Americans are unemployed, compared to 8.8 percent of whites.

Why is that?  Why does race make a difference when it comes to poverty, to unemployment, to homelessness?

There is a reason for it: that people of color are still faced with more barriers to opportunities than whites.  It is because people of color today — people who live in what we would all like to think of as color-blind Washington State — people today, in 2010, are still experiencing the deep-rooted generational poverty that stems from institutional racism.  And there are still systemic inequities based on race — as well as on gender — that bar the way out of poverty for so many.

So, why is the YWCA advocating not just for empowering women — as people would expect us to do — but also advocating for the elimination of racism?  I would offer that it should not be surprising at all, and I will quote the far more eloquent Gloria Steinem, who spoke at our 2010 Seattle luncheon:

“Wherever you find racism you will find that women of the so-called ‘superior’ or ‘more powerful’ group are restricted… It’s not possible to continue a racial hierarchy into many, many future generations without restricting females… It’s not possible to be a feminist or a womanist or a women’s liberationist or a mujerista without also being an anti-racist.  And it’s not possible to be an anti-racist without also being a feminist, a mujerista, a womanist — and that’s what the YWCA stands for, has always stood for.”

Thank you, Gloria.  We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

So, now, why should we all care?  Why should we all care beyond the fact that we are compassionate and caring human beings?  Why should we care for our own personal interest and benefit about reversing the trends in unemployment for working mothers, about assuring more living wage jobs, about creating more affordable housing, about empowering women and eliminating racism?

We care because an investment in women is an investment in our community.  Strong and supported women are better mothers, better providers for their families, better workers for their employers, better consumers for the economy, better contributors to their community.  When they are able to support themselves, they rely less on public assistance and pay more into the tax system that supports services for us all.

A woman who doesn’t know from month to month if she can keep the lights on or the refrigerator filled or the landlord from the door has a far more difficult time being the mother she wants to be.  And the stressful world she lives in is her children’s world, too.  Try as we might to protect them, our children know when their parents are in financial distress.  It affects their ability to concentrate and to learn.  In very low-income or homeless families, older children may even be forced to leave school and get a job to help support the family.  Nationally, high school students from low-income families drop out of school at six times the rate of students from higher-income families.  And so, the cycle of poverty goes on.

As former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately. Families are healthier.  They are better fed.  Their income, savings and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities, and eventually of whole countries.”

There is no better investment than one that helps to ensure that women have access to living-wage jobs, to affordable housing and child care, to education and job training, to domestic violence resources and health services.  An investment in women will pay off by igniting our economic recovery and by establishing a foundation to hedge against economic downturns in the future.

How can we all make that happen?  Here are a few ideas.

  • As business owners and managers, examine your employment policies and evaluate your salaries by position and gender.  Do you make it flexible for working mothers to care for their families while still meeting all the demands of the job?  Are there gaps between what you pay men and women with similar responsibilities and levels of experience?
  • Support the construction of mixed-income, affordable housing developments in your community.  The YWCA is currently building a new Family Village in Issaquah Highlands that will provide 146 affordable apartments for 400 adults and children, including 10 units for families transitioning from homelessness, and we’ve been more than supported, we’ve been genuinely welcomed.
  • Consider a candidate’s support for increased opportunities for women and families as you weigh your decision-making at the ballot box.  Be equally discerning when it comes to ballot issues; vote with investing in women in mind.
  • Learn more about issues that affect women.  Delve below the surface of issues like poverty, homelessness and racism.  Share your knowledge with others and discuss ways that you can make a difference.
  • Get involved.  Volunteer, mentor, donate.  Support those community organizations that are working hard to support women and families.  You can make a difference.

Of course, we would welcome your interest in learning more about how the YWCA is working to empower and support women and families. By investing in women, I can promise you that you will make your community an even better place to live for all of us.


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