A recent report shows that women headed up 40 percent of Illinois' more than 404,100 low-income working families in 2012.
Nationwide, women were the main providers for 4.1 million low-income working families in 2012, with 163,341 of those households being in Illinois, according to the report from the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative focused on strengthening state-level policies to help working families attain economic security.
At the national level, the share of female-headed working families that are low-income has increased since the onset of the recession, from 54 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2012, according to the report, which analyzed the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Additionally, the report showed that 8.5 million children were living in female-headed, low-income families in 2012.
Almost half of these low-income working mothers were employed in just 16 different occupations, mainly in the retail and service industries, which are often associated with lower wages and few, if any, benefits. Notably, the report found that 56 of all low-income working mothers in 2012 worked full-time, or at least 35 hours a week.
Anne Ladky, executive director of the Chicago-based organization Women Employed, said low-income working women in Illinois are often "concentrated in the least-stable, lowest-paying jobs with the fewest benefits."
“We need to make these jobs better by ensuring that everyone who works is paid a decent wage, earns paid sick time and can count on a stable schedule," she stressed.
In March, a measure was introduced in the Chicago City Council that would make earned paid sick days a requirement in the city. A similar measure that would extend paid sick days to more workers in the state is also pending in the Illinois legislature.
Many low-income working mothers in 2012 were employed as cashiers, cooks, maids, waitresses, and child care workers, the report showed. But the occupation held by the most low-income working mothers was home health aide. The report noted that the number of home health aides is expected to rise by 69 percent, or more than 700,000 workers, between 2010 and 2020.
Direct care workers have historically been excluded from federal minimum wage and overtime laws after being put into a "companion services" category, which babysitters also fall under. The good news is that nearly 2 million workers who provide direct in-home assistance to those who are elderly, disabled or sick will be entitled to these labor protections under new U.S. Department of Labor regulations, which are set to take effect in 2015.
The Labor Department's new rule will have less of an impact in Illinois, however, as the state has already extended minimum wage and overtime protections to direct care workers.
The report stressed that more needs to be done to make sure that home health aide jobs, "with their high availability and relatively low barriers to entry, are good jobs with benefits, career growth and viable, family-supporting wages."
A “low-income working family” is defined as earning no more than twice the federal poverty income threshold, which was $36,966 in 2012 for a single-parent family with two children.
“Too many female-headed working families have no pathway out of poverty,” said one of the report's authors Deborah Povich, co-manager of the Working Poor Families Project. “Public policy can and must play a critical role in increasing opportunities so families can achieve economic security. Addressing the needs of low-income working mothers will benefit their children and future generations.”
In addition to adopting measures like paid sick leave and paid family leave, Illinois should also increase its minimum wage to help improve the quality of low-wage jobs, the report recommended. Public policy, according to the report, also needs to focus on maintaining a strong system of family supports, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Another recommendation in the report was improved access to child care.
Meanwhile, the report also found that more than 78,000 low-income working mothers in Illinois had no postsecondary education.
Some of the suggested state reforms to help increase access and success for low-income working mothers in higher education include providing need-based financial aid to part-time students as well as more affordable child care.
“Without access to the necessary educational and training opportunities, the number of low-income families across Illinois will continue to grow and their communities will suffer,” added Carrie Thomas, associate director of the Chicago Jobs Council, an advocacy group focused on improving access to employment opportunities for people living in poverty. “Sensible policy will lead to a pathway out of poverty for thousands of low-income working families across the state.”