J. Harris: Single women head one-in-three working poor families

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“Lady Madonna, children at your feet, wonder how you manage to make ends meet” — Paul McCartney and John Lennon

The economy is failing Maine women and their children. There are ways to help women participate fully in the economy but, rather than adopting sound policies, Maine’s governor and his allies in the Legislature have made it more difficult for working families, especially female-headed households, to get ahead.

In 2012, women headed one of every three low-income working families in Maine. These are women who are working, but still do not earn enough to meet their families’ needs.

There are many reasons why the economy fails women, including a persistent gender gap in earnings, insufficient good-paying jobs, high cost of college tuition, and a lack of health care and other benefits.

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Without college degrees or specialized job skills, women cannot secure today’s higher-paying, higher-demand occupations. Too many become stuck in low-paying jobs without health insurance, paid sick leave, and other benefits. Nationally, women account for 61 percent of full-time minimum wage workers.

A new report by the Working Poor Families Project, “Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Economic Future,” describes how states can improve the economic status of women by providing financial aid, especially for part-time attendance to improve their access to post-secondary education.

Policymakers can bolster the quality of low-wage jobs by raising the minimum wage and assuring all workers have paid sick leave and paid family leave. And they can implement a strong network of work supports to help working parents to meet basic needs such as affordable quality child care, a state-refundable Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and expanded health care under the federal Affordable Care Act.

While the effectiveness of these policies has been demonstrated elsewhere, Maine policymakers have taken steps backward on several fronts.

Last year, despite strong support by Mainers, legislators failed to override the governor’s veto of legislation to accept federal funds to expand health care to nearly 70,000 low-income Mainers, making sure they continue to struggle to pay doctors’ bills.

The Legislature also cut funding to Maine’s Competitive Skills Scholarship Program (CSSP) that provides grants to low-income students, not only for tuition and books, but also for child care, transportation and family emergencies. CSSP makes higher education accessible to low-income, working Mainers and is critical to enabling them to stay in school.

Gov. Paul LePage also vetoed an increase of Maine’s minimum wage, which when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was 40 years ago. Because more women than men in Maine are in low-paying minimum wage jobs, raising the minimum wage would directly benefit female-headed households.

The 125th Maine Legislature capped the amount of time that families can receive benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) at 60 months. The time limits make it difficult for a single mother going to college part-time to finish her degree. Once her benefits run out, she has to quit school to work or take care of her family.

The EITC, a refundable income tax credit, rewards work and encourages single parents to leave welfare for work. It has lifted more children out of poverty than any other program. Yet a bill to increase Maine’s EITC is languishing in the Legislature.

Maine women are today’s breadwinners and their children are Maine’s workforce of tomorrow.

Implementing proven poverty-reducing prescriptions can ensure that the economy works better for women and provides them a path to the middle class. Investments in education, job training and other supports that give working women better opportunities are investments in Maine’s future prosperity.

Jody Harris is the associate director of the Maine Center for Economic Policy.

According to the report, “Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Economic Future,” prepared by The Working Poor Families Project, as of 2012, there were roughly 40,000 low-income working families in Maine, of which 14,424 are headed by single women.

Nearly 40 percent of those female heads of households have no post-secondary education.

Nationwide there now are 4.1 million low-income families headed by working mothers struggling to support 8.5 million children.

For more information, go to: www.workingpoorfamilies.org

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