In another sign of an economy that is failing to provide for working families, the share of female-headed working families considered low- income is increasing nationwide. There are now 4.1 million low-income families headed by working mothers in the United States, according to a new report by the Working Poor Families Project. The number of low-income working families that were headed by women jumped to 58 percent of the total in 2012, up from 54 percent in 2007. Figures are substantially higher for communities of color.
The low-income threshold for a family of three with two children was $36,966 (roughly twice the federal poverty line), according to the authors of the report.
The picture isn’t any rosier in North Carolina, which ranks 19th in the nation for the number of female-headed, low-income families. Of the 380,113 low-income working families in the state, 40 percent—or roughly 151,000—were headed by working mothers. Working hard simply isn’t enough for these families to make ends meet. Yet, we know that our economy grows best when the gains are broadly shared across the income distribution.
Working mothers and their families are living paycheck to paycheck due to many factors, ranging from a lack of skills training or credentials to few opportunities in higher-paying, higher-demand occupations to a persistent gender gap in earnings. Women earn only 82 cents on the dollar compared to men in North Carolina even though the Equal Pay Act was signed back in 1963. We also hold a disproportionate share of low-wage jobs, with the result being that too many women workers do not have jobs that offer benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave or, in some occupations, even wage protections.
Many female-headed, low-income families in this state are increasingly finding it hard to secure a job that pays family-sustaining wages because they don’t have access to the required postsecondary education. Four in 10 of the women heading low-income working families in North Carolina have no postsecondary education, according to the report. Improving access to and success within postsecondary education by providing need-based financial aid to part-time students along with affordable child care is among the most meaningful reform that can help low-income families. Watch this inspiring story about how crucial the state’s child care subsidies program is to one Tar Heel mother working on her college degree.
State lawmakers have significant authority and opportunity to assist low-income working families with children. Unfortunately, they are enacting policies that make it more difficult for working families to get ahead. Rather than making it easier for mothers to stay attached to the labor force, they funded fewer pre-kindergarten slots and failed to fully address the child care subsidy waiting list. Lawmakers eliminated the Displaced Homemaker Program, which provided important workforce development services to North Carolinians with barriers to self-sufficiency—such as a recently divorced or widowed low-income working mothers. And rather than making work pay, they began the dismantling of the state’s network of work supports by axing the Earned Income Tax Credit that (at the federal level) is effective at boosting employment among single mothers.
North Carolina policymaker’s have a primary responsibility to create and support strong communities, which can only happen when all of us have the opportunities we need to become economically secure.