$20.86 per hour.

That is what a single mother needs to earn just to cover basic costs of living in Evanston. And that’s only if she just has one child (a single mother of two must make $25.51).

This wage, according to Penn State’s Living Wage Project, is just enough to cover basics such as food, child care, housing transportation, and medical costs. It’s more than twice the current minimum wage in Illinois, and it is nearly three times the federal minimum wage.

Struggling to get by while working a low-wage job is not a problem unique to mothers, or to women, but it is one that disproportionately affects them.

Women make up 62% of the American low-wage workforce. Here in Evanston, the top employers include the school districts, assisted living facilities and grocery stores, which means many women are working as health care aides, nurses, teacher’s aides, and grocery store workers. They are the ones who are caring for others’ sick and elderly family members, watching over others’ children, and helping  others get food on the tables – but they often cannot afford to put food on their own.

They have to rely on food stamps, a program that was recently slashed. Their children must enroll in the free- or reduced-fee lunch program at school (42% of students at Evanston Township High School qualify for the subsidized lunch program).

The most recent census found that there are nearly 5,000 more women living in poverty in Evanston than men. Nearly 17% of single mothers in Evanston are living in poverty – and the number of women heading up households with children grew to 28% in the past decade. 

And there are many more women who are not yet living in poverty but are just one bout of flu, one broken-down car, or one missed paycheck away from it.

These women are struggling not only because of the insufficiency of the minimum wage – they also have limited, if any, access to benefits.

They often face unstable and unpredictable schedules, which might have them working 40 hours one week and 15 the next. This makes it extremely difficult to plan for childcare and bill payments, schedule health-care appointments, or take classes to earn a degree and get a better job.

They live in dread of falling ill, because odds are they do not get any earned sick time: 80% of low-wage workers do not ear sick time (even though the majority of voters believe they should).

Instead, these women have to choose their health and losing a paycheck – or even their job. They can’t stay home when their children are sick, which means many students end up going to school when they don’t feel well and spreading germs.

When the Evanston schools close, say for a Polar Vortex, these mothers are caught in a terrible bind. They have to scramble for last-minute childcare or miss a day’s pay and perhaps get a black mark from their employer. They might even be fired .

These women and their families deserve better. “These are women who work hard, who are trying everything they can to make a better future for themselves and their families,” says Anne Ladky, executive director of Women Employed.

“But their hard work doesn’t lift them out of poverty. Their struggles are often invisible or ignored, even though their poverty doesn’t just hurt them – it hurts their children, our communities, and our economy. What helps working women helps us all,” Ms. Ladky adds.

That help can take many forms, from legislation and educational policies to the efforts of local organizations and grassroots or employer-led initiatives.

Fortunately, work is being done on all of these fronts to help the women in our community.

In the second part of this two-article series, readers will learn about Evanston organizations and programs as well as broader Chicagoland initiatives that may be able to create the change that working women so desperately need.