Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Single Working Moms: 'These Women Are Community Assets'

When Kamilyn Baskerville (second from left) came back to Chicago after living in Tennessee, she thought she'd have no problem getting a job. She had military experience, good grades in school and skills. Yet it turned out finding work wasn't as easy as she expected. A single mother, she and her three children stayed with her mother while she hunted for a job. After a while, the welcome mat wore out at her mother's, and she and her children had nowhere to stay. She called Catholic Charities, and they helped her with housing while she worked part-time at Kmart and earned a certificate from the College of Office Technology. Even with her new credential, she still wasn't finding a better job. The $750 rent on her South Side apartment was more than she could afford on a part-time job at minimum wage, and the rent subsidy she had been getting from Catholic Charities was about to run out.

Catholic Charities told Kamilyn about the Cara Program, which offers job training, placement and support to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. She decided to give it a try despite her experience-based reservations about job training programs. "They just say 'go do this job,'" but don't always offer the support people need to get ahead, she told the crowd at the Federal Reserve this morning for a discussion of research on single working mothers commissioned by the Eleanor Foundation. At the Cara Program, Kamilyn was initially taken aback when she had to speak in front of a group during training. She thought, "I don't even like to sit and talk in public! Why would I do this?"

Yet she stuck it out. "I went to get a job, but I left a whole new person. I was transformed," she said. She learned to sell herself so successfully she was hired at Pitney Bowes solely on the strength of her interview. She also won a four-year scholarship to Robert Morris College, where she is studying accounting and earning plenty of As, just like her three children. Today, she and her kids live in a four-bedroom North Side apartment made available through a partnership between the Eleanor Foundation and the Chicago Low-Income Housing Trust Fund.

Unfortunately, many of Kamilyn's peers have yet to see her successes. New research on the state of single working mothers in the top ten largest metro areas in the United States, plus a deeper dive into Chicago metro area data, shows that single moms are working harder yet doing worse economically than they were in 1990. Researchers Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project and Malcolm Bush of Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago show that single moms earning up to $30,000 a year are largely working and increasing numbers are going to school. But low-wage jobs and the lack of affordable rental housing are forcing more of them to spend over half their income on rent, leaving them with little left over for food, medical care, clothing and other necessities.

Eleanor Foundation president Rosanna Marquez noted that "over 90 percent of this population does not access any public benefits or services. They're doing it on their own." When she made the point "these women are community assets." I thought about the women I know on my own block who are in their position--women who make tamales and sell them on the street, who watch each other's children, who ask for advice about schools, who organize block parties.

As Gary Orfield told the gathering, "the future really does depend on what happens with these mothers and their children." There's a lot to be done to improve opportunities for affordable housing, reliable child care and adult education, all of which would help these moms greatly. "Having a decent, comprehensive, well-organized post-secondary system for people who aren't going to do the four-year college route" would make a big difference in the economic future for many women in this group, said Malcolm Bush. The stimulus package includes a number of supports that could benefit single working moms and others, but researchers will have to be quick to observe the effects and advocates will have to gear up for a big fight to preserve those gains when the stimulus ends, both observed.

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