Tough Life for Low-Wage Working Mothers

May 11, 2014

A new brief from the National Women’s Law Center tells us what we already knew, but not in such detail. Tough as it is to be a working mother with young children, it’s ever so much tougher if you’re in a low-wage job.

About 2.1 million — nearly one in five — mothers with children no older than three have jobs that typically pay, at most, $10.10 an hour, i.e., what the minimum wage bill stalled in Congress would require nationwide.

They’re the workers who care for our children and our elderly and/or disabled family members, the workers who clean our houses, prepare and serve our food when we go out to eat, ring up our purchases at the store and pack the products we’re buying.

More than half — 53% — are single or, for other reasons, raising their children without a husband in the house. Presumably many of them are the sole breadwinners, relying on their own earnings and perhaps some safety net benefits to support themselves and at least one child.

Here are some of the other things we learn about the group as a whole.

Just over half the mothers work full time. Most of the rest — 35.7% — work part time for “non-economic reasons.” These can include an inability to afford what child care would cost if they had to rely on it for more than eight hours a day, five days a week.

The mothers are disproportionately black or Hispanic — 50.3% of the group as a whole. By contrast, only 26.6% of all workers belong to these race/ethnicity groups.

The largest portion of the mothers — 42% — have only a high school diploma or the equivalent. Somewhat under than 17% have less formal education. But that leaves 41.4% who have at least some college education and still work in low-wage jobs.

This may be, to some extent, because low-wage industries, e.g., food service and administrative support, have more than recovered from job losses due to the recession, while there’s still a deficit of more than 1.9 million jobs in mid-wage and high-wage industries.

Similarly, 60% of women’s job gains during the first four years after the recession officially ended are of the low-wage sort. And to make matters worse, the real dollar value of wages in the largest low-wage occupations has dropped.

So what could we give these low-wage working moms for Mother’s Day? On the policy front, NWLC has some answers. They’d benefit all lower-income families with children — and some of them childless workers as well.

Top of the list, as you might expect, are increases in both the regular minimum wage and the tip credit wage, i.e., the minimum cash wage employers must pay workers who regularly receive tips.

Two related policies would require employers to provide some specified amount of paid leave so that workers could afford to take time off when they were sick or needed to care for a sick family member. Other family-related reasons would also qualify, e.g., pregnancy and childbirth.

As of last year, only 30% of low-wage workers in non-government jobs could take even a day off with pay when they were sick. And only 5% had any paid family leave benefit. These workers, needless to say, can least afford a pay loss. And they’re highly vulnerable to a job loss if they must take time off anyway.

On related note, NWLC calls for stronger enforcement of stronger legal protections against discrimination based on pregnancy and caregiver responsibilities.

The latter is a growing problem and not expressly prohibited by federal law, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute. Nor broadly by any state, except the (non-state) District of Columbia.

The NWLC agenda would also give workers more control over their work schedules, i.e., some say in when they have to show up and when they can leave. And the schedules wouldn’t be so unpredictable from week to week or subject to daily cutbacks and/or required overtime. Both, as I’ve written before, pose a host of problems for low-wage workers.

Child care would be less problematic. There’d be more of it affordable for low-wage workers — both through subsidies to help pay for care by private-sector providers and through expanded pre-K programs.

As things stand now, our low-wage mothers in 19 states would have to pay, on average, at least half their earnings to have their infants or toddlers cared for in a center — assuming they worked full time, year round and had to cover the full cost.

Both child care and early childhood ed programs would be “high-quality” — an iffy matter now, as recent reviews of state licensing rules for childcare centers and state-funded preschool programs indicate.

And policies for both would “respond to families’ diverse circumstances,” which, I suppose, means, among other things, ensuring they’re available when working families need them.

The last item on the NWLC agenda calls for stronger safety net supports, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and SNAP (food stamp) benefits — the latter twice-cut in the past year.

To all this, I’ll add one more Mother’s Day gift for the low-wage single moms. A halt to blaming them for all the ills that beset their children because our public policies leave them in poverty — or at best, on the verge.

 


Surprising and Other Facts About Single Mothers and Fathers

September 9, 2013

At least half of today’s children will probably spend part of their childhood in a single-parent family. But we’re seemingly still ignorant about who the parents are and the challenges they face.

Doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of rhetoric, of course — and a considerable amount of blame-casting.

But facts are in short supply when policymakers and other opinion-leaders turn their attention to single-parent issues — or more precisely, single-mother issues, since we rarely hear about single dads who’ve taken on the responsibility of raising their kids.

Tim Casey at Legal Momentum seeks to remedy this with a “snapshot” of single parenthood in the U.S. — the first of his annual fact sheets that deals with single parents, rather than single mothers only.

Here’s a summary of what we learn — highly selective and far less data-packed than what Casey has pulled together from the Census Bureau’s latest detailed tables and other sources.

Most single parents, i.e., those with kids in the house, are single mothers — 79% of the total last year. No surprise here.

More surprising perhaps, a majority of single parents were formerly married or still married, but separated from their spouses. Only 44% of children in single-parent families lived with a parent who’d always been single.

Also surprising, I think, is the fact that most single parents have no more than two children — and more than half (56%) only one child. Another stereotype bites the dust.

Children in single-parent families are far more likely to be living in poverty than children in two-parent families. In 2011, they accounted for 53% of all poor children.

Looked at another way, their poverty rate was more than triple the rate for children in two-parent families — 42%, as compared to 13%.

Part of the explanation for this, of course, is that the family has only one breadwinner — and apparently in many cases, little or nothing in child support.

Those breadwinners weren’t faring all that well. Just 54% were employed full-time and another 13% part-time when the 2012 census was taken. By contrast, 85% of fathers and 48% of mothers in two-parent families had full-time jobs.

Some of the working parents earned more than enough to support themselves and their kids. I suppose we all know examples. Perhaps some of you are examples.

Yet single parents are much more likely than other workers to be stuck in low-wage jobs. According to a study Casey cites, 34% of single mothers were both low-wage and low-income* in 2009.

We see the results in more current figures. In 2011, for example, the median annual income for single-mother families was $25,353 — only 32% of the median for two-parent families.

This means that the median for single mothers was well below 200% of the federal poverty line — a common definition of low-income.

The median for single fathers was $12,814, but still only 48% of the median for two-parent families.

We shouldn’t be surprised then to learn that 34% of single-parent families experienced food insecurity, i.e., didn’t always have the resources to buy “enough food for an active, healthy life.” Or altogether surprised that they were more than 80% of all homeless families in shelters in 2010.

And, alas, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that only 11% of single-parent families received cash assistance last year — yet another indicator of what “welfare reform” has done to the safety net.

In an earlier study, Casey and a co-researcher compared the status of single parents in the U.S. with the status of their counterparts in other high-income countries.

They found that single parents here have one of the highest — if not the highest — employment rate, but also the highest relative poverty rate, i.e., incomes below 50% of the country’s median.

One reason is their concentration in low-wage jobs — and what seems to be pay discrimination. Another is our relatively small investment in affordable child care and free education for very young children.

Still another is our paltry income support programs, e.g., our lack of a national paid leave mandate or a monthly cash benefit specifically to help with the costs of raising children.

And then there’s our Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. Even when combined with SNAP (the food stamp program), it provides, by far and away, the least assistance, as measured by percent of median income.

We purport to be all far families and the well-being of our nation’s children. But our policies say otherwise.

We don’t, I think, need more enlightened policies specifically for single parents. But we do need policies that recognize the realities of family life today, including the fact that a lot of them have — or will have — only one parent present.

* Low-wage here means less than two-thirds of the median hourly wage for the state. Low-income, as often, is less than 200% of the federal poverty line.


Extending Unemployment Benefits Won’t Help All Jobless Workers

August 24, 2012

Looking back on my post about the expiring federal unemployment insurance benefits, I realized I’d left out important parts of the picture.

One is the growing number of workers who’ve been jobless more than 99 weeks — longer than the maximum for benefits even when both federal programs were in full force.

The other is that lots of workers who lose their jobs through no fault of their own can’t get UI benefits at all.

In 2010, for example, only 44% of these workers got any benefits from their state programs, according to a recent brief from the Urban Institute.

The brief documents what we probably would have guessed. A very high percentage of the left-out workers are “disadvantaged,” e.g., blacks and Hispanics, single mothers, teens and young adults.

Both blacks and Hispanics are also unusually likely to be among the long-term unemployed, another Institute brief tells us.

We know from other sources that single mothers were far more likely to be jobless and actively looking for work last year than married mothers — or the labor force as a whole. This was also true for the 16-24 year old age group.

The disadvantaged workers are less likely than others to get UI benefits because states have eligibility rules that tend to exclude them.

These, in some cases, are related to the workers’ disadvantages in the labor market.

Virtually all states, for example, have minimum earnings requirements. The time period they use varies, but the earnings threshold will always disadvantage low-wage workers whose jobs weren’t ongoing and full-time.

Workers who got jobs through temporary agencies are often out of luck — even if they put in a full day, every day.

Only 22 states will provide benefits for workers who have to quit for reasons most of us would find compelling, i.e., domestic violence, the need to care for a sick or disabled family member.*

Not surprisingly, single mothers seem to fall into this group, though the Institute’s report isn’t altogether clear on this.

Many are also left out in the 23 states that won’t provide benefits for workers who are looking for a new job that isn’t full time. We know anecdotally that single mothers may have no alternative because they can’t afford the high costs of child care.

The Recovery Act gave states a financial incentive to eliminate such barriers in their UI programs.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia adopted the first and only partial payment option — or already had it on the books.

But only 34 states and the District took the minimum three actions that netted them the full amount they could receive.

Just one and the District went for the fully battery. Still barriers for disadvantaged workers in both jurisdictions, however.

Some states have since tightened up their requirements — this rather than raise the imprudently low UI taxes they’d decided to collect from employers.

The end result is a patchwork of coverage.

But there are only five states in which more than half of all jobless workers got UI benefits in 2010. And only one — Alaska — where the rate topped 60%.

* Eleven other states will provide benefits for workers who quit because of domestic violence, but not because of a family member’s illness or disability.


How Unaffordable Is Child Care for Low-Income Parents?

May 29, 2012

A bunch of things got me wondering about child care costs. How unaffordable are they for low-income parents who don’t have the benefit of subsidies?

The annual survey reports by the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies are the best source of data on affordability I’ve found.

So I pulled figures from the latest report — most of them for 2009. Then did some calculations of my own — or more precisely, told Excel to do them.

Here’s a summary of key results, plus some Google gleanings about impacts.

Single Mothers Earning the Median

Single-mother families have average incomes significantly lower than families with two parents present. So I began my number crunching with them.

Lots of figures to enter. So I stuck with the costs of center-based care. It’s generally more expensive than care in a home setting, but also more frequently used.

NACCRA gives us breakouts for the median income of single-mother families in each state and the District of Columbia. Also the cost of care for infants and for four year olds as a percent of the median income .

Say a single mother needed child care for one of each. In 20 states and the District, she’d have had to pay more than two-thirds of her income if she earned the median.

Even in the lowest-cost states, nearly half her income would have had to go for child care.

In 30 states and the District, child care for only an infant would have consumed at least a third of her income.

Minimum Wage Workers

Things get worse, of course, for minimum wage workers — even if they work full time, year round, as many don’t.

But say we’ve got a minimum wage worker who does. In 26 states and the District, his/her entire pretax income would have been less than the costs of child care for the infant and four year old.*

Costs of care for the infant alone would have consumed more than half the full-time, year round minimum wage in 33 states and the District — and more than two-thirds in 14 states, plus the District.

Child care was unaffordable even for families with two full-time, year round minimum wage workers. For the two kids, they would have had to pay more than half their gross income in 27 states and the District.

In only one state — Mississippi — would they have had as much as two-thirds of their income for everything else a family needs.

So What’s a Poor Parent to Do?

According to the latest (not very recent) figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, roughly 39% of poor children eligible for federally-funded child care subsidies received them in 2006.

Eligibility here means that they were under 13, unless they had special needs. And their parents were either working or participating in education or training activities.

An additional 23% of eligible children in families with incomes between 101% and 150% of the federal poverty line also received child care subsidies.

Which leaves us with some 38% of poor and near-poor children whose parents worked — or were working toward work — without subsidized care.

As the National Women’s Law Center observes, some parents can rely on their parents or other relatives for child care. Somewhat more low-income parents than others do. But for a variety of reasons, many can’t.

And, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, many can’t afford child care at market rates. So what do they do?

Some, mostly moms, choose not to work. Better financially to have one parent out there earning and the other at home with the kids.

Others work part-time or in shifts, barely seeing each other awake for days on end.

And single mothers?

Some of them also decide they can’t go on working. They turn — or return — unwillingly to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It’s a stopgap solution because TANF is time-limited. But it solves the child care problem for awhile.

One homeless mother says she worked nights while her kids slept in the car parked where she could keep an eye on them.

Surely we could do better for children, their parents and our economy. To say this would involve some reordering of priorities in Congress is an understatement.

* The federal minimum wage increased by 50 cents an hour in July 2009. This produced minimum wage increases in most states and the District. For my calculations, I used the post-increase rate.


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