Alabama should invest in brain cells, not more prison cells
As much as 90 percent of single mothers earning $30,000 or less in the Birmingham metro area may be working two jobs to meet their financial obligations.
And almost 40 percent of their take-home pay goes for childcare. More than half of those mothers say they have lost a job or a promotion because of time taken off due to childcare needs.
Those are the findings of a report out this week commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, an area non-profit committed to improving economic opportunities for women and girls in the area. The group’s study, "Clearing the Path," took about nine months to compile, Women’s Fund President Jeanne Jackson said.
The report is based on the responses of about 200 single mothers in five counties of the Birmingham metro area – Jefferson, Walker, Blount, St. Clair and Shelby. Most are employed full-time and earning $30,000 a year or less. Of those, more than 85 percent work from 31 to 50 hours or more a week. Some work with the city’s largest employers, such as UAB, Brookwood Baptist and Regions.
It tells the story of single women caught in a vicious cycle – they work long hours and have trouble paying their bills. Some of that is due to the constant need for quality childcare that can accommodate their work schedules. These issues lead to a precarious existence where pay is unstable, the hours are exhausting and little meaningful time may be spent with their children.
Still, Jackson said the results of the study show that some of these issues can be solved.
"I’m actually more optimistic than when I first read it," she said.
The most common issues among single mothers employed in low-wage jobs are predictable. Many of those surveyed say they work irregular hours, sometimes fewer than what they need to pay their bills. Those work schedules don’t allow for flexibility or paid sick leave.
These issues are compounded when they seek paid childcare where they feel their children are safe. It may not be available during the hours they need. For example, close to half of all single mothers in the five-county area surveyed live below the poverty level. Yet, according to a 2014 survey, daycare costs in the Birmingham area are the highest in Alabama.
And what if the child wakes up with a fever? The mother most often is forced to take her own sick leave time.
Then there’s the Cliff Effect – get a job and women may earn too much to be eligible for federal or state benefits like Medicaid, child care subsidies or rental assistance.
"The majority felt squeezed financially, blocked in their attempts to achieve financial security despite their hard work," the report states.
Jackson said the Women’s Fund has worked consistently at getting more education and job opportunities for low income women. But women consistently earn less than men, and require higher education degrees to get better paying jobs.
What are the solutions? The study recommends employers consider more flexible hours, work schedules that line up with traditional daycare hours, and offering on-site daycare. Childcare providers can create a system for mildly-ill children, or extend their hours. Policymakers could increase state funding to expand access to the pre-K program and subsidies for child care.
"Some good things are happening in Alabama," Jackson said. "We’re seeing some employers, like UAB, raise their minimum wage, and companies like Alabama Power offering flextime.
"Yes, some of these options are more expensive, but you receive the rewards of recruiting better workers, retention, and that may be worth it."
You can read the report here.
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