A Low-Income Woman's Nation: How a Green Economy Can Help Those Struggling Most - Women's Foundation California

Judy Patrick and Shelley A. Davis

As seen on Grist and Change.org

October 23, 2009 – This past week Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress released a seminal report on the emergence of women as primary wage earners for millions of families. The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything, marks a promising step forward in the evolution of a society that for too long has failed to adjust policies and practices to women’s growing presence in the workplace.

Left in the shadows of this otherwise comprehensive report, however, were the unique obstacles faced by those struggling most to make ends meet-low-income single mothers trying to support their families on paltry wages in jobs that offer no prospects for a better future. Any serious national discussion on the obstacles confronting women in the workforce must include a special focus on the growing numbers of women toiling at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Consider these facts:

  • Ninety percent of working-age adults who work full-time but earn less than $15,000 a year are women.
  • In 2008, 37.2 percent of female-headed families with children were living in poverty compared with just 8 percent of families with both parents in the home and 14 percent of male-headed families.
  • Adult women and teenage girls make up two-thirds of minimum wage employees in the U.S.

The recession has taken a significant toll on low-income single mothers. In September, 11.6 percent of this population were unemployed, compared with 11 percent of men overall and 7.4 percent of married men. Providing low-income single women with the resources to train for and stay employed in jobs with good wages and benefits is the clearest path to a brighter future for millions of families. Since women now make up half the workforce, it is also a vital component of lasting economic recovery for our nation.

As founding members of a new collaborative of women’s foundations—the Women’s Economic Security Campaign—we have seen up close how programs that train women for better paying jobs with the possibility of advancement can make all the difference for families and communities. With the emergence of a green jobs sector, we have an opportunity to advance women’s economic security in a bigger and better way than ever before, providing low-income women with a rare chance to get in on the ground floor of a growth industry and learn the skills to compete for stable, higher-paying jobs.

Unfortunately most green jobs, from weatherizing homes and buildings to constructing wind turbines, are in fields that have typically been dominated by men. As a society we have a terrible track record of training and placing women in these non-traditional careers. For example, 0.5 percent of roofers and 1.4 percent of plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters are women, according to a new report from the Women’s Economic Security Campaign—Creating Opportunity for Low-Income Women in the Green Economy. Even at the higher end, women make up just 10.6 percent of civil engineers. The median hourly wage for roofers, at the low-end of the non-traditional job spectrum, is $16.17 an hour—enough to cover the basic needs of a small family. By contrast, preschool teachers, 98 percent of whom are women, earn just $11.48 an hour. At that wage, a preschool teacher would need to work over 25 hours more per week then a roofer to support a similar living standard.

Fortunately, our country is in a good position to change this pattern. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided states with millions of dollars to train workers for new green sector jobs. We need to ensure that a significant portion of those funds goes to programs that prepare low-income women to successfully compete in the green economy.

Once they are on the job we need to provide women with the supports necessary to stay employed. For low-income single mothers that means child care, flexible hours, and accessible transportation. It also means enforcing anti-discrimination and sexual harassment laws that for too long have made non-traditional workplaces inhospitable to women.

As Congress debates climate change legislation, our representatives in Washington, D.C. should stand up for the needs of low-income women when considering provisions aimed at training and placing workers in green jobs. We have the chance to do it right this time and shape a more promising future for the growing number of women and children in poverty. In the process we can help our nation move toward a long-term economic recovery that will benefit us all.

Judy Patrick is president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California and a founder of Women's Economic Security Campaign, which aims to elevate the voices of women's foundations to dismantle poverty.

Shelley A. Davis is vice-president of programs and advocacy for Chicago Foundation for Women and is also a founder of Women's Economic Security Campaign.

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