Kelly White

(WOMENSENEWS)–President Obama says we are entering a new era of financial responsibility.

Single mothers have always done more with less; they know all about that.

But economic solutions rarely focus on how to help them avoid financial crisis.

Chicago Foundation for Women and our sister funds in the Women’s Economic Security Collaborative are ready to advise the Obama administration and other elected officials on how new policies and reforms will affect single-woman-headed households.

In his $3.6 trillion 2010 budget released Feb. 26, President Obama proposes to create jobs, improve health care, expand educational opportunities and cut taxes.

Though we only know broad strokes, I see promise in this budget blueprint.

Emphasizing Education

Obama has publicly bemoaned our ability to compete internationally with such a high high-school drop-out rate.

Many young women are virtually forced to drop out.

Young mothers rack up too many tardies because the child-care center doesn’t open until 8 a.m. A survivor of sexual assault stops attending class because the school cannot find a way to keep her safe from her attacker and his friends.

These are stories heard by the Illinois Ensuring Success in School Task Force, a new program searching for ways to help violence survivors and teen parents graduate and thrive, which my organization, Chicago Foundation for Women, supports.

The Department of Education’s budget includes improvements to student achievement, so we urge the Obama administration to fund efforts modeled on the task force.

Access to Child Care

The $789 billion stimulus package included $4.1 billion for Head Start, Early Head Start and block grant child-care programs. Obama says his 2010 budget will be "building on these investments."

This is incredibly helpful to all mothers.

Working mothers spend on average 45 percent of their income on child care, according to the 2006 American Community Survey.

The $800 "Making Work Pay" tax credit and the stimulus-created child tax credit would be made permanent in 2010, which would help middle-income working mothers offset these bills.

And the budget promises to strengthen the refundable earned-income tax credit, one of the most effective ways to help low-income families.

The child and dependent care tax credit, which allows deductions of some paid child care bills, should expand and become refundable, as the National Women’s Law Center recommends. Obama supported this during his campaign but has not included it in his 2010 plan.

Federal Guarantee for Sick Leave

Without paid sick leave, women cannot afford to stay home, because that is dollars off a paycheck.

And single mothers are often just one paycheck away from the domino effect of unpaid bills, bankruptcy and homelessness.

Many struggling working moms have no employer-paid sick leave.

The Healthy Workplace Act in Illinois would entitle any worker in our home state to accrue paid sick time, and Chicago Foundation for Women supports this initiative.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research’s analysis of a proposed policy to require paid sick leave in Milwaukee found that it would provide "substantial savings to employers by reducing turnover and minimizing absenteeism."

Paid sick leave is a good policy for women and would be a good economic investment nationwide.

Stimulus for Women’s Jobs Too

The Labor Department’s unemployment data released March 6 found that the jobless rate has grown to 8.1 percent, and in February alone 651,000 jobs were lost.

Women’s unemployment has increased more rapidly than men’s since September, when the retail and service sectors began suffering.

The National Women’s Law Center reports that unemployment for women who are heads of households is up 54 percent in the last year.

Getting just any job is not enough. Women are overrepresented in low-paying occupations and industries.

Over a lifetime, the National Committee on Pay Equity reports that the gender pay gap shorts women $700,000 if they have high school degrees, and even more with college or professional degrees; $1.2 million and $2 million respectively.

Unequal pay compounds over time. Retired women receive smaller Social Security checks yet rely largely on those since they often save little or no retirement money on their own.

Two of Obama’s proposals could help. An automatic pension plan would require employers without existing plans to create direct-deposit IRA accounts. And an increase to the saver’s credit for low- and middle-income households would match some retirement savings.

Unequal pay exists across industries but is compounded by women’s exclusion from high-paying trades dominated by men.

While women may benefit from growth in health care and education fields, where they are already employed, they deserve access to jobs in male-dominated skilled trades created by stimulus funds.

Women also need help retaining skilled trade jobs and staying safe in nontraditional workplaces, where they disproportionately face discrimination and sexual harassment.

Obama’s 2010 budget will help by increasing funding to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the Department of Labor, in order to enforce labor standards and promote diversity.

Speaking From Experience

I was once a single mom myself, so I know from personal experience how much good all these measures could do.

Today, I’m married, a mother of three grown children and the director of a foundation that proudly funds and advocates for women’s human rights.

But just over 20 years ago, I barely survived from paycheck to paycheck.

I was forced to abandon my home and flee to another state with my two young sons in order to get away from my abusive ex-husband.

I took a lower-paying job and struggled to pay the child-care costs that consumed fully 60 percent of my income. I faced these conditions despite a college education and work experience.

When I examine Obama’s proposed 2010 budget, I can still look at it with those eyes.

Certainly, there are many more factors affecting single mothers that need to be addressed, including child support, access to health care, predatory lending and affordable higher education.

If there’s one thing I want to emphasize again, it’s that when women are put at the center of solutions to this financial crisis, they rise up, and when women’s lives improve, so do their families, communities and the national economy.

Kelly White is executive director of Chicago Foundation for Women. The foundation is part of the Women’s Economic Security Collaborative, a joint effort with the Women’s Foundation of California, Washington Area Women’s Foundation and the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis to put women and their families at the center of the public economic discourse. She has worked for more than 25 years in leadership positions in organizations serving women and children and is the author of a book, "A Safe Place," to be published in the fall.

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