Massachusetts has one of the highest concentrations of poor working women, a new study shows, with nearly half of the state’s low-income households headed by single mothers struggling in low-wage jobs.
These women are falling further behind in the state’s technology-driven economy, which increasingly rewards education and skills but provides the poor with few opportunities to gain the types of professional certificates and degrees needed to succeed, according to a study by the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative to strengthen policies that help low-income households.
The women must juggle low-paying jobs — sometimes more than one — with child care and other responsibilities as they try to meet expenses, making it nearly impossible to obtain higher education and land better jobs.
“We have this enormous education gap,” said Ruth J. Liberman, vice president of public policy at Crittenton Women’s Union, a Boston nonprofit involved in the study. “We’ve got to help single mothers go to college and succeed.”
Massachusetts has the fifth-highest percentage of low-income households headed by women, tied with Mississippi and behind Louisiana, Alaska, and two other New England states, Rhode Island and Connecticut.
In Massachusetts, about 69,000 families are headed by single working mothers. Nationally, some 4.1 million low-income households are headed by women.
Education has become a key factor in the widening gap between rich and poor.
An analysis of census data by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, found that the earnings difference between young adults with and without bachelor’s degrees has widened to the biggest gap in nearly half a century.
Young adults with just a high school diploma earned 62 percent of the typical salary of college graduates, according the analysis. As a whole, high school graduates were more likely to live in poverty and be dissatisfied with their jobs, if not unemployed.
But helping to educate and train families with children has become harder in recent years, advocates said. In Massachusetts, funds for those programs have been slashed more than 85 percent, to $7.7 million from $53 million in 2001, according to data provided by Crittenton Women’s Union.
State legislators are considering welfare proposals worth millions that would help place people in full-time jobs and give them training to do those jobs. The final form of the legislation is still in negotiations between the House and Senate.
“We have certainly taken into consideration that there are many households in Massachusetts being headed up by working mothers, single mothers,” said Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan, Democrat of Leominster, where 26 percent of families headed by women live below the poverty level, compared to roughly 7 percent of all families, according to census data. “We wanted to ensure that whatever dollars we are spending are going toward helping families become sustainable.”
Advocates say the state needs to focus its efforts on more than just providing financial aid to help the poor finish college or vocational programs. Other polices that could help lift families out of poverty include providing affordable child care and raising the minimum wage.
President Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage during his State of the Union address last month, going so far as to use his executive power to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10.
The Massachusetts Senate has passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2016.
Mentoring is also a must, Liberman said.
“Giving a person a scholarship is great,” she said, “but if you don’t give them coaching and advice about how to finish quickly and successfully, they’re going to get tripped up.”
The Crittenton Women’s Union’s multi-year Career Family Opportunity program, for example, provides single parents a mentor to help them map out and work toward their educational, professional, and financial goals.
Sayra Alemany credits the program with providing the support she has needed to stay in school even as she works a slew of temporary jobs and raises her three children, ages 10, 7, and 3.
It hasn’t been easy. Pregnant at 16, then at 20 and 24, Alemany was once homeless for almost two years, living in a shelter with her kids when she was laid off from a department store and couldn’t pay the rent.
Still, she held on to the promise she had made to herself when she dropped out of high school: “No matter how long and how many years it took, I was going to obtain my education.”
She enrolled in Crittenton’s program in 2012 and is now studying radiology at Bunker Hill Community College.
Today, Alemany said, she dreams of owning her own home — one with a patio or a deck for cookouts — and talks about it constantly with her 10-year-old daughter, while monitoring her savings.
“She’s counting down every day,” she said, adding that “my house would look like a two-family home. I would live on the second floor so I could have attic space, and my grandmother would live on the first floor.”