Across the nation working women and their families are struggling – and here in Evanston, as well. Of the 11.8% of Evanston residents living in poverty, a disproportionate number are women. [See Evanston RoundTable, April 10, 2014, for Part I of this series]. Increasingly, women are taking over as breadwinners for their families, and the poverty rate for single mothers in Evanston is 17%.
These numbers are discouraging. The problem requires more than Band-Aid solutions; systematic change is needed. That means improving women’s access to the higher education and training they need to improve their job prospects, as well as enacting fair workplace policies that will enable them to find positions with decent pay, predictable hours and reasonable benefits.
“By 2020, 67% of jobs will require a college degree or certificate,” says Sarah Labadie, senior policy associate at the Chicago-based nonprofit Women Employed. “On average, a two-year degree means a 28% pay increase, while a four-year degree means an 88% increase. Every woman should be able to earn an education that will help her expand her earnings and support her family,” she says.
Unfortunately, financial aid in Illinois is severely limited, and adult students attending community colleges often suffer the most from early award cutoffs. This is just one reason the state must increase financial aid funding, and it is a goal that organizations such as Women Employed are fighting to make a reality.
Even when she can secure financial aid and enroll in Oakton Community College or another school, a working mother must also access the quantity of information and academic advising that will help her reach her goal – all while juggling work, classes and family responsibilities. These challenges can lead some students to drop out.
Those struggling now with school and work can find help at the Complete the Degree center in Chicago, recently founded to help individuals who have earned some college credits figure out how to return to school and finish their degrees. Located at 65 E. Wacker Place, Ste. 1500, Complete the Degree provides services free of charge to all Chicagoland residents. Appointments can be made online – the organization’s website, at completethedegree.org, states they take no walk-ins – and contact information is available there and at 312-267-2580.
In the future, Women Employed and likeminded organizations hope to bring about better higher-education support systems and bridge programs that will help nontraditional traditional students succeed before they have to drop out.
Policy change is still important – the good jobs with benefits and reasonable pay have to exist before women, with or without degrees, can find them. At the federal and state level, pending legislation to raise the minimum wage would greatly help women, who make up two-thirds of minimum-wage workers. Legislating paid family leave, equal pay and rights for pregnant workers would level the playing field for working women and encourage men to share in family responsibilities.
While many advocates are working to bring about broad-scale change, on-the-ground Evanston organizations are helping women who need help now. Struggling mothers can look to the Child Care Center of Evanston, Family Focus and the Infant Welfare Society of Evanston to help them with affordable childcare, quality early-education programming and family support programs that can help bolster parenting skills and include ESL and GED courses.
One particularly exciting approach to addressing working parents’ immediate needs is the recently proposed Evanston Cradle to Career Initiative, which will create a working group with a holistic approach to helping Evanston children prosper.
Helping their mothers earn their education and find quality jobs is, of course, one of the best ways to help these children. Fortunately, the YWCA Evanston/North Shore offers a Women’s Economic Empowerment program, which works to increase the money management-awareness among women with low to moderate incomes, and has more recently added job-readiness soft-skills workshops to their offerings.
The Evanston women spending each day worrying about how they will pay their bills, get an education and care for their children are not alone. Help for them and others like them must come from advocacy, volunteering, mentoring and funding. If enough people raise their voices and fight for the change that working women so desperately need – if they support and expand these programs and organizations – working women in Evanston may finally be able to earn the educations and find the jobs that they deserve. Whether it is volunteering to mentor a woman looking for work, donating to organizations that address these problems , or voting for policy reform that will help working women, each Evanston resident can make a difference.