Miércoles 24 de Mayo de 2006, Ip nº 154

The other mothers
Por Betsy Gotbaum and Nancy Rankin

MUCH has been written recently about highly educated women choosing to take time out from their careers to raise a family. Unfortunately, little attention has been given to the challenges facing women at the opposite end of the pay scale.

In New York City, the labor force participation rate for single mothers with no more than a high school education rose to 57.8 percent last year from 40 percent in 1996. For these women, opting out is not possible, but the strains they face are huge.

A recent survey by the Community Service Society, a nonprofit group that fights poverty, found that among low-income working mothers living on less than $32,000 for a family of three, more than half were not entitled to even a single day of paid sick leave; 61 percent did not have paid vacation; and 80 percent did not receive any employee health benefits for themselves or their children.

While Medicaid filled the gap for some, 37 percent of these low-wage mothers had to forgo necessary medical care in the past year. A third had their electricity or phone turned off because they could not pay the bills. Forty-three percent had to rely on food pantries, and 42 percent fell behind in their rent.

Faced with the struggle to make ends meet, a low-wage mother can rarely stay home with a sick child or recover from her own illness when it means losing a day's pay, or worse, jeopardizing her job.

Subsidized child care, including after-school and summer programs, would ease the burden on low-income working mothers, but they also need health insurance and more time and income to care for their families.

New York City and those of us who work against poverty should do more to help people take advantage of existing benefits, like food stamps and the earned income tax credit. Studies show that more than 700,000 eligible New Yorkers are still not receiving food stamps. Moreover, the working poor are the least likely to obtain benefits because they cannot afford to take time off from their jobs to apply. Outreach campaigns and online applications, which the city has promised using federal money, would be a huge help.

Washington should also increase basic employee benefits to fit the realities of today's single-parent and two-working-parent families. Senator Edward Kennedy's proposed Healthy Families Act would guarantee seven days paid sick leave to full-time workers and prorated benefits for part-time employees.

New York State should follow the lead set by California, which in 2004 became the first state to provide comprehensive paid family leave, and extend the temporary disability insurance system to provide paid leave to care for a new child, one's own serious illness or that of a family member. Actuarial estimates show that the state could provide this benefit for its working families for a cost of only 27 cents a week per employee. The citywide survey by the Community Service Society found that 73 percent of New Yorkers would be willing to pay for it.

Health insurance is more difficult. Lawmakers in Albany are pushing proposals to force large employers to provide better health benefits, similar to the so-called Wal-Mart law recently enacted in Maryland. While such laws would help many workers, they do little for the majority of low-wage mothers who are employed by small companies. Seven out of 10 of the low-income working mothers surveyed by the Community Service Society worked for firms with fewer than 50 employees.

In the short run, New York City and the state should simplify enrollment in programs like Medicaid and Child and Family Health Plus and pursue efforts to provide low-cost plans to small businesses. For example, the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce has partnered with local insurance providers to bring down the cost of health insurance for small businesses. This program could be expanded citywide. New York should also watch what happens in Massachusetts, which has started a program to bring health coverage to all its citizens through a mix of incentives and requirements.

Ultimately, we need to think more broadly about how to make work compatible with family responsibilities. New ideas like seasonal job-sharing — pairing entry-level mothers in need of extended summer breaks with young people in school who need summer jobs — would solve two problems at once.

A nation that promotes work as the path out of poverty should make an effort to pave the road and make the journey smoother.

  14/05/2006. The New York Times.