Census 2020: Let’s Ensure a Complete Count!

The U.S. Census counts every resident in the United States every ten years, but its goal is much more than just a head count. Census data plays a crucial role in the apportionment of congress and the allocation of federal resources across the country.  Businesses also use it to drive key decisions, like where to ship products or where to build new stores. Philanthropy and non-profit organizations rely on Census data to inform their objectives and initiatives. At The Women’s Foundation, we use it frequently to understand how women and girls are faring in our region, and to inform our goals, strategy, grantmaking, and evaluation. (Click here to check out some of the reports and fact sheets we have prepared using data from the Census and the American Community Survey).

An undercount of the population will have far-reaching implications for communities living at the margins. Because of a combination of factors, including structural discrimination, inequitable policies, distrust in the government, and access barriers, census counts disproportionately overlook people of color, people with lower-incomes, children, people with mental and physical disabilities, transient and recently rehoused populations, and non-English speakers.  (Explore this map to see where the hardest-to-count census tracts are in the Washington region.)

This time around, a fraught political climate and a growing digital divide—the 2020 census will be the first to allow residents to respond online—are boosting the odds against an accurate count. It is still unclear whether the census will include the controversial citizenship question the Trump administration proposed to add, but several advocacy organizations have pointed out that the mere proposal of including this question has already deterred many communities from responding.

We believe disaggregated, accurate, accessible, and current data are essential to identifying gaps, understanding which populations experiencing vulnerability need special interventions, and designing and adapting programs and policies that can sustain positive change. To support an accurate census count in our region, the Women’s Foundation joined a group of local funders leveraging resources to make sure everyone counts and everyone is counted.

Along with WRAG, Metropolitan Council of Governments, and 13 other foundations, we are organizing a daylong forum on June 6, 2019, for our Grantee Partners and non-profit organizations in our community to identify and discuss strategies to reach-out to hard-to-count communities. If you are interested in learning more about opportunities to help with outreach, you want everyone in your community to get counted, and you would like to meet members of your jurisdiction’s complete count committees, make sure you register for “Interventions that Work: 2020 Census and Hard-to-Reach Communities” before May 30.


Claudia Williams is Program Officer at Washington Area Women’s Foundation where she contributes to crafting and executing program strategy and manages the Young Women’s Initiative of Washington, DC

Takeaways from the White House Summit on Working Families

obama-working-families-summittYesterday, I had the privilege to attend the White House Summit on Working Families.  The White House hosted the Summit along with the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, to highlight and discuss some of the most pressing issues facing workers and families in our 21st century workplaces.

The Women’s Foundation will have a series of blogs on the Summit, but for now, here are my immediate takeaways:

1. Expect to hear more about paid family leave, especially parental leave; fair pay; and early learning. These were several policy areas the President explicitly mentioned in his speech. He also mentioned many more and announced new and greater flexibility for federal workers.

2. Get engaged at the local level.  National change is slow and, as the First Lady encouraged when she spoke to the Summit, we have to be okay with incremental progress of 20%, stacked on another 20%, and so on.  It is this steady – albeit slow – progress that can help us push forward.  On the local level, mayors and governors can enact change much sooner in their cities and states.  Likewise, CEOs can enact change in their own companies, and show others how these policies support workers and improve the bottom line.

3. Women everywhere, at all levels, are making sacrifices and choices.  As some women ascend, it is our responsibility to mentor the next generation and set “the tone from the middle” or “the tone from the top” – depending on where we are in our careers – and take it upon ourselves to create workplace cultures and policies that are fair, supportive and productive.

4. These are not just women’s issues.  These are issues for all working people, of all family types, and they can’t be pigeon-holed.  Whether it is a working dad, who wants to care for his infant in the first days of parenthood, or a childless worker that needs to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment, issues like paid leave affect the ability of all working people to provide and care for their families while they earn a living and contribute to the economy.

Stay tuned for more in depth coverage of the Summit from The Women’s Foundation! In the meantime, you can find more information on http://workingfamiliessummit.org or check out the conversation on Twitter using #FamiliesSucceed.

The Year in Review: Top Legislation Impacting Women in 2013

It seems that women have been the center of many policy debates this year, both nationally and locally. We’ve been keeping an eye on important legislation affecting women and their families in 2013 and have put together a list of the top bills, policies and legislation of the year, plus a few to keep tabs on in 2014:

1. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) cuts:

In November of this year, automatic cuts to SNAP took effect as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) expired. The cuts amounted to $29 a month for a family of three and reduced SNAP benefits to an average of less than $1.40 per person per meal in 2014.

Keep an eye on this in 2014: Additional cuts could be coming in 2014. Cuts to SNAP are included in the Farm Bill, but the number varies depending on version. Though the conference committee tasked with reconciling the House and Senate versions of the bill won’t have an agreement by the end of 2013, it is likely the bill will pass in some form in early 2014.

2. Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013:

This bill was signed into law in March and expands protections for victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault. Among other things, it helps create a national prevention hotline, funds shelters, facilitates the prosecution of perpetrators, provides a temporary visa and pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who are the victims of domestic abuse and greatly expands the housing rights of domestic violence survivors.

3. Raising the minimum wage to $11.50/hr in DC, Montgomery County and Prince George’s County:

Just in time to make our 2013 roundup, these three local governments all passed bills to raise the minimum wage in their respective jurisdictions. This is a huge step and very important for our region, but as the Foundation’s President Nicky Goren wrote in her Huffington Post article earlier this month, this increase is just a start. Still, there has been a lot of activism around raising the minimum wage lately, including President Obama supporting a bill to raise the federal minimum wage. We’ll be watching this issue in the new year.

4. Long-term unemployment insurance runs out December 28:

Recent statistics show that women are roughly 45% of the long-term unemployed. Right now, the length of time a person can collect unemployment benefits varies significantly by state, but it can be as long as 73 weeks in some places. Come December 28, 2013, 26 weeks will be the maximum length a person will be able to collect the benefit. At that time, anyone who has been on unemployment longer than 26 weeks will be completely cut-off (that number will likely be 1.3 million Americans). The Urban Institute has created a great resource for learning more about this important issue, here.

5. Sequester and Shutdown:

2013 saw both The Sequester and The Shutdown, with the Washington region being heavily impacted by both. The Sequester caused cuts to social services, furloughs for government workers, and serious hits to the Head Start program. The Shutdown nearly crippled the Head Start program altogether in November and caused many local non-profits and families to struggle as they went without funding and paychecks for 16 days. Sequestration has been devastating for housing assistance programs, causing significant shortfalls in housing vouchers for low-income families.

6. Affordable Care Act came online:

Though the rollout has had its issues, the Affordable Care Act officially came online this past year, and the implications for women and their families are huge. Already, almost 1.5 million people have enrolled in Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. All the women and children included in that figure will get free preventative care such as mammograms, screenings for cervical cancer and other services, along with coverage for other medical issues at reasonable prices and no co-pay for most birth control.

To watch in the coming year:

1. Immigration Reform:

This bill didn’t make it through Congress this year, but the implications of comprehensive immigration reform for families could be huge. It is estimated that there are between 11 and 20 million undocumented immigrants in America, many of them living away from families for years or decades. Many undocumented immigrants forgo public assistance they could legally obtain for fear they will be deported. There is a lot of momentum for this bill, and we’ll be watching what happens in 2014.

2. Strong Start for America’s Children Act:

On November 13, the Strong Start for America’s Children Act was introduced in the House and Senate. This legislation would provide universal access to high-quality pre-kindergarten for low-income children and expand child care for infants and toddlers through a federal-state partnership.  This bill has bipartisan support and would be a huge early care and education win if it passes. A summary on the bill from the National Women’s Law Center is here.

 3. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act):

This bill was introduced in December of this year. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (widely known as FMLA) currently requires employers to provide leave for qualified medical and family reasons, it only requires unpaid leave. The new bill that has been introduced would provide federal family leave insurance that would provide workers with up to 12 weeks of partial income for qualified leave. This is certainly something that could be a huge boost for women and their families, and we’ll be watching it closely in 2014.

Was this review helpful? Did we miss something? Let us know in the comments section!

Sharon Williams Luncheon Remarks

Sharon-SpeakingOn October 23, Sharon Williams spoke at The Women’s Foundation’s 2013 Leadership Luncheon. The following are her remarks. After speaking, Sharon received a Visionary Award for her commitment to improving the lives of women and their families. Please click here to learn more about the Visionary Awards and click here to see a video featuring Sharon and her story.

Good afternoon everyone- It is kind of strange seeing myself up there on the big screen.  As I listen to myself talk – it really does remind me of how much my life has changed. You saw a little of my story in the video, and I’d like to share a bit more with you now.

Upwards of 10 years ago, my life was very different. I spent a lot time asking God, “Why me?”

I was in high school – 10th grade to be exact when I had my first child. I’m not sure if I was afraid – but I can tell you that I was more determined than ever to be and make a difference for my child. Part of that difference was getting married – which I did at 17.  By the time I was 21 years old, I had two children, my own successful daycare business, three vehicles and I purchased my first home – with a white picket fence. I decided that having a daycare was the best thing because I wanted to spend time with my children and everything that I did was for them.

That all sounds nice, but my personal situation was not good, but as I look back on it now I still feel like I made the right decisions especially with the cards that I had been dealt.

And then – life happened.   I got divorced. I closed my business – moved out of my home into an apartment– shared custody of my children and I felt cheated. I began to ask God, “Why me? I’ve done my best – I’ve tried so hard to be a better person and now look!”

I was getting frustrated with life itself and something within me stirred up like a fire and once again – I wanted to make this situation better for my children.

I began taking classes at Prince George’s Community College.   I learned about the Next Step Training and Education Program and I wanted to try it out.

This was one of the best decisions that I could have made.  The Next Step program not only assisted me with tuition but I was also given additional supportive services and tools to aid in my future success.  One of the most rewarding on the most rewarding gift that I took away from the program is a lifelong mentor in Cecelia Knox, the program’s director.

Once I was accepted into the nursing program I was ecstatic!  You would have thought that I hit the Powerball ten times over – and I don’t even play the lottery!

I want you to understand how huge it was for me to go back to school. College was never a goal for me. So you can imagine how shocked I was not only to be back in school… not only to be passing all of my classes… but getting a 4.0 GPA!

I must say to you all – and especially Cecelia – I am so grateful that the Next Step program was in place to assist me when life happened. What do I mean by “life happening?” What I mean is this: When circumstances place you in situations beyond your immediate control. No two situations are the same, and I know everyone in this room can relate to that.

Next Step put me back in control. You see life wasn’t just happening to me but it was I that decided what life would be.

For me, that meant becoming a registered nurse at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center. It meant an opportunity to provide my children with more stability and security.  It meant taking advantage of opportunities to travel the world – and I have.

I received a full scholarship to Notre Dame of MD University to complete my Bachelor’s Degree.  I traveled to Australia and South Africa – learning about their health care systems and volunteering with TB clinics and HIV orphanages.  I visited Nelson Mandela’s prison cell – I walked in his garden – I strolled in the limestone quarry – just like he did.

But what made a most lasting effect on me was my visit to a nursing home – because that’s where I met Mrs. Christian.  She was a proud elderly South African woman who grew up in the brutality of apartheid.

I sat at her feet as she told our group about seeing the horrors of families being ripped apart and how she stood on the front line with the activists in fight to end to apartheid. Although her comments were towards the group as a whole – she looked into my eyes as she spoke – and I found myself once again asking God, “Why me?”

“I have fought for you to be free,” she said. “And you are under obligation to take advantage of the education available to you and use it to better yourself, your family and your community!”

And she told me – me – that she was proud of me and in that moment my priorities in life changed and my thinking changed and I made a conscious effort to see greatness in others.

I began to believe within myself that if given the opportunity – people living in less than ideal conditions and having less than ideal situations could and would do great things – and  honestly my friends – that is the belief that NSTEP had in me.

As a Registered Nurse I have helped a lot of people old and young alike and I have found babies to be the most interesting species of them all.

Some of them come out kicking and screaming and ready to run for the world and others are born not so active.  They need extra attention – maybe some oxygen and a sternal rub in order to get them to breathe – to get their arms flailing and their legs kicking so they too can be ready to run for the world.

It’s that way for adults sometimes too –  Some are fortunate enough to have had a background and upbringing that allowed them to take off running – while Others need that sternal rub so to speak to help us breath again and give us the strength to stand up and take off for the world as it were –  And when we do – it’s a beautiful thing.

It’s been about two years now since my trip to South Africa and I have worked hard to help others. I know that I have encouraged and inspired others to go back to school.   I often have the privilege of returning to Prince George’s Community College to speaking with women in orientation for the Next Step program and I listen to their stories – I listen to their hopes and dreams without judgment – because I remember being in their seat.

Today, I work roughly 10 miles from where I grew up. Knowing my history – knowing where I come from and where I am now has caused me to ask at times:  Am I one in a million? A needle in a haystack – No.   There are many success stories emerging from the streets of S.E. Washington, DC just like mine.  How? Because we have been given an opportunity and found someone to believe in us more than we believed in ourselves and for me – that was Cecelia Knox and Ms. Myrtle Christian.

Today, my conversations with God are very different. I say a humbled thank you for my 22-year-old son who is my pride and joy – for my 20-year-old daughter who completed high school at 15 years old and is now is studying to become a child psychologist… and for my 11-year-old daughter who is smart and so talented and plays the violin exceptionally well!

Today, I say thank you to God for the courage to keep my head up despite adversity and for allowing me to become an example for those who have the potential to succeed although they may not even realize it – yet.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to be with you fine people today and have you hear my story.  I am grateful that The Women’s Foundation invests in places like Prince George’s Community College – a place that has assisted me in my present and future successes – and hopefully I have been able to show you that what appears to be impossible is possible.

Today, I place you all under obligation to take advantage of what is before you and join me in making our community better than it was yesterday.

Thank you.

No Joke: The Impact of the Sequester is Devastating Vulnerable Families

Capitol Bldg by Amanda Walker_CCSeems like the word “sequester” has become part of our everyday vernacular here in the DC metro region, so much so that not a day goes by without it coming up in some context. Yet, since its implementation, it feels like the sense of urgency to resolve the impact of the sequester has dissipated. It’s no longer front page news and has become the source of jokes and derision. There was the non-“snowquester” in March; the sparring about what was really behind the cancellations of all White House tours; and the reports about how Congress quickly passed legislation to resolve the impact of the sequester on air travel – just as their week-long recess was beginning (really???). And all the while, critical social services that are helping to meet the needs of our poorest communities are being cut. Programs like Headstart, nutrition assistance, child-care subsidies, and health screenings for low-income women all faced significant cutbacks but without the same sense of outrage or swift action that some of these less consequential outcomes spurred.

The reality is that the sequester is not a joke, and though the hype has faded and pundits are saying the effects have not been as bad as predicted, for many people the very real implications and impact of these policy decisions are just beginning. For them, this will be devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people have been affected by cuts to programs like those listed above; poor people in this country are once again bearing the brunt of bad policy and are finding that their pathways out of poverty have been blocked.

And the sequester isn’t only affecting people who rely on social services. There are also the large swaths of the federal workforce that have been required to take mandatory furloughs. A chief economist for Moody’s Analytics told The Hill last month that one-third of the federal workforce – nearly one million people – “will be furloughed for an average of 13 days through September.” This can have an enormous impact on any family, and for those at the bottom of the federal pay scale – who are probably already living paycheck to paycheck – it is likely crushing and life-changing. Keep in mind that, in the Washington region, the federal pay scale that determines how much most of the federal civilian workforce is paid starts at just over $22,000.

People I know and people you know and maybe see every day could be among those who will have to go without pay for more than two weeks to ease the financial strain on the federal government. It makes you wonder what the average person is supposed to give up to ease her own financial strain.

Our lawmakers need to start putting the needs of those who are most disadvantaged first instead of last and try to put themselves, even for a moment, in the shoes of those who are most profoundly impacted by the policy decisions they are making (or not making as the case may be) from on high.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Equal Pay Day: Gender Wage Gap is a Chasm for Women of Color

As we approached Equal Pay Day (April 9th), a number of bloggers and organizations were asked to write about what they’d do with an additional $11,000. That’s how much more the average woman would earn per year if her pay were equal to a man’s.

If she were a woman of color, however, that gap would be even greater. In the Washington region, the median earnings for black women are over $37,000 less than that of white men ($46,138 vs. $83,299). For Latinas, the gap is more than $52,000 ($30,831 vs. $83,299). Asian women have median earnings of $48,891 – over $34,000 less than the earnings of white men.*

If women’s incomes matched those of white men, what would that additional money mean for women of color in our community? It would be more than enough to fund an entire associate’s degree at a local community college. It would fund more than half of a bachelor’s degree at some local universities. It would send three children to a really high-quality preschool in DC. And it would cover the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in the District. It could provide more reliable transportation and could fund afterschool activities and trips. Something could be set aside for the inevitable emergencies life throws everyone’s way, and investments could be made.

In addition to funding the basic needs of themselves and their families, these women would be putting a staggering amount of money back into our community. In our report, 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area, we shared that nearly two million women live in the DC region. Fifty-three percent of them are Asian, black or Latina – that’s about one million. If just half of them had an income that matched the median earnings of white men, they’d have a combined income of $42 trillion. And that’s only half! Imagine if all women across the area were compensated as well as men….

That money would support families, be spent at local businesses, and could be invested in assets across our region that would build better neighborhoods and ultimately a better community. A significant portion would go to the federal government and – given the fact that women donate an average of 3.5 percent of their wealth – the nonprofit community would see some pretty significant changes, as well.

In addition to discussing what women would do with a higher income, I think it’s important to recognize what we can all accomplish when women earn more. Like so many other things, pay equity is an issue that primarily touches the lives of women – but it’s not simply a “women’s issue.” It affects every one of us and as long as it exists, it means that we’re not doing as well as we could be economically or morally. Equal pay for equal work is the right thing to do, the smart thing to do, and the only thing to do if we truly want to make this a country where everyone can thrive.

*See page 32 of 2010 Portrait of Women & Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Five Policies That Impacted Women & Their Families in 2012

IMG_1244At The Women’s Foundation, we pay close attention to policies that affect women and their families throughout the year. Here are five that we’ve kept tabs on in 2012.

5. The Paycheck Fairness Act. In June, the Senate failed to move forward with legislation that would have helped ensure equal pay for both genders. The Paycheck Fairness Act would have required employers to demonstrate that gender does not play a role in salary differences between men and women performing the same work. The Senate fell eight votes short of advancing the bill, but – due to some political maneuvering – didn’t totally kill it. According to the Census Bureau, women’s median annual earnings are about 78 percent that of men’s. The gap is even greater for women of color.

4. 2012 Farm Bill. Food insecurity disproportionately impacts low-income women and children, who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. SNAP is part of the Farm Bill, which was up for renewal this year (it has to be renewed every five years). The bill expired in September and Congress was unable to pass a new version before the House adjourned last week. The future of the bill could be impacted before the end of the year by fiscal cliff negotiations or retroactive extensions. The biggest points of disagreement in the bill are farm subsidies and SNAP benefits. There are currently 47 million people enrolled in the food stamps program.

3. The 2012 Election. While the election itself is not a policy, the record number of women elected to Congress in 2012 will likely have a significant impact on future policy. In spite of the notable increase, women still only make up 17 percent of Congress – we have a long way to go. Higher political representation for women at the national, state and local levels increases the likelihood that laws and policies will reflect the needs and interests of women and children.

2. Affordable Care Act. In June, the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, which will be an important tool in improving the health and economic security of low-income women and their children. Under the ACA, women will pay lower healthcare costs and can receive preventative care without co-pays. Medicaid coverage will also be expanded to cover more families who live above the poverty line but who are still economically insecure.

1. Resolving the “Fiscal Cliff.” This is still a work-in-progress… we hope. If there’s no compromise, experts say that the hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars in tax increases and spending cuts that will take place on January 1st will likely push the country into a recession. The impact on low-income women and children would be disproportionate and particularly devastating. The services and policies that could be affected include: the Earned Income Tax Credit, the child tax credit, Head Start and other child care programs, nutrition assistance and housing assistance. As negotiations continue, the President and Congress need to work together to keep the country from going over the cliff – and not at the expense of our most economically vulnerable families.

Service Innovations Summit: Global Lessons on the Role of Nonprofits & Volunteerism

Nicky SpainAcross the globe, there’s growing recognition of the value of nonprofits and volunteers joining with corporations and governments to solve social issues.  Last month, I was honored to participate in a conversation about the most effective ways those sectors can come together at the inaugural Service Innovations Summit in Madrid. The international summit was co-hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont, the Rafael del Pino Foundation in Madrid, and the Meridian Center in Washington.  The summit brought together the corporate sector, foundations, and NGO’s from Spain, a handful of other European countries, as well as the US to share information and best practices related to volunteering, corporate social responsibility, and public-private partnerships.  Being in Madrid added a sense of urgency to the summit: in Spain, one-in-four people is unemployed (one-in-two people under the age of 25 is unemployed) and in the middle of the conference there was a one-day negotiated general strike across the country to protest recent labor law changes that made it less costly to hire and fire workers.

I was invited to the summit to share some of my experiences and perspectives of service and volunteering from my years at the Corporation for National and Community Service, as well as great examples of some of The Women’s Foundation’s grantee partners, like A Wider Circle, who engage all levels of volunteers as part of their business models.  And I was able to connect with some of the nonprofits in Spain that provide important services to women and girls during these times of increasing need.

It was interesting to learn that Spain’s history and social and cultural norms have resulted in the government playing a significant role in funding for and solving social issues and, in many cases, limited the ability of NGOs and individuals to step in when there is a void.  As a fairly new democracy, the idea of voluntary “citizen service” is also relatively new and many participants in the summit were excited about the idea of spurring innovation and creative solutions to the challenges Spain is facing.  It is also worth noting how powerful a force family is in Spain – that one’s family is the major source of support, comfort, and sustenance when needed.

As enamored as I was with the city of Madrid, its history, art, culture, fashion, architecture, and food (funny how quickly I adapted to dinner at 10 pm!), I was even more enamored by the sense of optimism of the people I met – people who are determined to address the difficult economy the country is facing with renewed focus on the power and potential of nonprofits, foundations, corporations, volunteers, philanthropy, and the government collaborating in new ways and learning from each other – both within Spain and across the world.  As so many countries struggle to recover from economic downturns, it will be more important than ever for us to have gatherings like the Service Innovations Summit that facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources to ensure that all sectors are working as effectively as possible.

Nicky Goren is president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Weathering the Recession (Mostly) on their Own: How the Poor Get By

Tamara*, a long-time nurses’ assistant, hurt herself at work and was told she would be let go if she could not do her job. To prevent a sudden income loss, she applied for Unemployment Insurance (UI), but was denied because she was still technically employed by the nursing home.

A week later she was fired, and, within a few months, reported that her car had been repossessed, and that she had been unable to pay her utility bills.

Despite the struggles of poor Americans like Tamara, the way the media portrays poverty in America is changing. Between headlines like “Bleak Portrait of Poverty is Off the Mark,” in The New York Times, and the recent release of the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure, a long-standing debate as to what constitutes poverty in the U.S. and how many people are truly poor has reemerged.

In particular, some argue that poor families’ standards of living have steadily risen over the last several decades, such that someone who is classified as poor today is likely to own a television or an X-box. Poor families’ consumption levels also tend to outpace their reported income levels, suggesting the poor have more resources available to them than expected, or that they systematically under-report their income.

Yet a study in which I’ve been involved for the past five years suggests that, regardless of where the official poverty mark is set, the lives of those living close to the poverty line are quite difficult, particularly during this economic downturn.

Since 2006, I have been interviewing a group of mostly single, African American mothers in their 30s and 40s living around Detroit, Michigan. Even during the best of economic times, female-headed households, particularly African American ones, tend to be one of the most vulnerable segments of our society.

During the recession, these women’s struggles have only worsened. The tough economy is partially to blame, but they have also had to find ways to weather the recession with minimal and unreliable assistance. Of the ways these women can seek support, none are very satisfying.

The first option is Unemployment Insurance (UI). When women like Tamara have lost their jobs, however, most do not qualify for UI. Some because of low earnings, others because the circumstances around their termination were complicated.

An alternative is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program (welfare). Early on, we asked women about experiences with the welfare office, and many chose not to receive these benefits during times of job loss because they did not want to be treated as if they were looking for a handout.

Given the benefits they could expect to receive, some women deemed the time and effort of dealing with a discourteous bureaucracy simply not worth it. Instead, they opted to receive food stamps only, which involves less interaction with the welfare office.

For women who decided to apply for benefits, the path was not much easier. In 2009, Nichelle*, another woman in our study, returned to Michigan when she lost her out-of-state job. Before moving back, she submitted an application online for assistance. Despite her planning, she waited more than a year for any benefits. She was first told her paper work was lost, and subsequently shuttled between various caseworkers.

Even the women who successfully apply for benefits struggle to maintain them. Take the example of Rhonda*, whose caseworker made a mistake when it was time for her food stamp case to be recertified, which happened every six months. During one of the recertification periods, Rhonda’s caseworker inadvertently closed the case and then Rhonda “couldn’t figure out how to get it straightened out.” It took four months for the mistake to be undone.

Regardless of their individual experiences, all of these women struggle with debt. Most choose to keep their gas and electricity connected, often by carrying large balances with the utility company. A few turned to credit cards during periods of unemployment or underemployment. With no other source of income, Nichelle used her credit card, as well as her refund from the Earned Income Tax Credit, to pay for a motel room with her children for nearly a year.

Food stamps, although necessary, will not pay for an overdue electricity bill or a required school uniform. While credit cards and debt accrual strategies may help families maintain a certain level of consumption, high interest rates mean even more debt, and a damaged credit score often follows.

Is this the kind of safety net we want? These women need better options to turn to without roadblocks every step of the way.

* All of the names in this piece have been changed to protect the women’s identities.

Kristin S. Seefeldt is an assistant professor for the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University.

This entry was re-posted with permission from Spotlight on Poverty & Opportunity, the source for news, ideas and action.

SOTU Reflections: Giving All Women & Girls a "Fair Shot"

SOTU_Pres Obama 2012I, like many in the region, sat down to watch the President’s State of the Union speech last night.  It’s an annual event that always engenders much anticipation (at least among the media pundits, political junkies, and those living in and around our nation’s capital), and this year was no exception.  Many called it “the” campaign speech, kicking off the 2012 election cycle.  Just a day before the speech, the White House said that the President would “outline his vision for an America where hard work and responsibility are rewarded, where everyone does their fair share, and where everyone is held accountable for what they do.”  Economic fairness was lauded as this year’s theme.

As I listened to the speech, I thought about the work that we do at The Women’s Foundation and the intersection between the federal policies discussed and the reality that women and girls in our region face, and I was once again struck by the huge disconnect that we continue to see.

The theme of the speech—economic fairness—sounds quite simple and logical.  The President spoke about how his grandparents contributed to a post-World War II “story of success that every American had a chance to share – the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.”  He called this “the defining issue of our time,” saying, “No challenge is more urgent.  No debate is more important.  We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by.  Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”  Who can argue with that?  Hard to disagree with the logic, so why can’t we get there?

Ask anyone who is out in the community, working in the trenches, and they will tell you that it’s not easy. The issues facing our nation and our local community are incredibly complex and they didn’t just pop up overnight, which means that the solutions are not simple, one-dimensional responses, and the problems won’t be solved with a blink of the eye.

Take the President’s commitment to train people with skills that will lead directly to jobs and his call to cut through “the maze of confusing training programs.”  Sounds like a no-brainer — of course we should train people with skills that lead to jobs; but just this past week we were once again reminded why something that may seem intuitive isn’t.  WAMU aired a report investigating D.C.’s job training programs and detailed the disconnect between some of the programs that are receiving funding, the skill sets required for the jobs people were being trained for, and ultimately, the availability of these jobs.  The example cited was the 4,000 people trained to earn a Commercial Drivers License and the 90 people who were ultimately hired by metro, the region’s largest CDL employer. How can there be such a disconnect?

Additionally, DC Fiscal Policy Institute, a Grantee Partner of The Women’s Foundation, released a resource map offering a snapshot of the city’s investment in workforce development over the course of one fiscal year.  The map details more than 30 programs and services across a dozen city agencies. It’s hard to imagine how someone could possibly navigate the system in the best of times, say nothing about the worst of times.

As we think about the worst of times and the state of our economy, the President rightly devoted a great deal of his speech to jobs.  And while he called for equal pay for women, the majority of the jobs-related portions of the speech focused on nontraditional jobs where women continue to be underrepresented and face numerous barriers to obtaining and retaining these jobs.  Isn’t it time that we give equal weight and value to ensuring women are paid equal wages for equal work?  Doesn’t that fundamentally fall into the economic fairness category?  Are we ok with telling our girls to work hard and get a good education only to be paid 77 cents on the dollar?

Calling on every state to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18 is a commendable goal set forth by the President.  There is no doubt about the importance of graduating high school and pursuing post-secondary education and training.  Our research demonstrates the drastic earnings differential based on educational attainment. Women in this region who do not have a high school diploma earn just over $18,000 per year compared to women with a graduate or professional degree who earn over $70,000.

But it’s not quite as cut and dry as simply saying that we’ll require everyone to graduate. Are we prepared to tackle the myriad of issues that cause youth, particularly girls, to drop out of school?  Generational poverty, family unemployment, violence, and teen pregnancy are just a few of the laundry list of issues that are at the crux of drop-out rates.

So how do we get there? Last night, the President reminded us that “no one built this country on their own. This nation is great because we worked as a team. This nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”  Well, there is no better time than now for our community to pull together to ensure that the Washington region is a model community where economically vulnerable women and girls have the resources to thrive.  Now is the time to work together toward innovative, multi-dimensional solutions that put women and girls on a path to prosperity.  Let’s break the disconnect.  Where would you start?

Jennifer Lockwood-Shabat is vice president of Washington Area Women’s Foundation.

Photo credit: WhiteHouse.gov