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When Student Loans are the Only Way to Pay for Child Care

A Student Parent’s Story of Balancing School, Parenthood, and Debt

by Andrea Fitch

Andrea Fitch

Andrea Fitch

I. Deciding to Go Back to School: “We needed to be a dual income family.”

When I first learned I was going to be a parent, I was overwhelmed with a combination of joy and nerves. I was ecstatic to take on the journey of parenthood, but I had not realized the high cost of essentials, such as diapers, formula, strollers, and, especially, child care. I wondered how it would all work out.

I was fortunate to have my husband and father of my children along with me throughout my journey of parenthood. But even with a partner, it was difficult to meet our children’s basic needs. My husband worked a seasonal job in the landscape industry, and being a stay-at-home mother was never an option for me. We needed to be a dual income family. But with both of us working full-time, that also meant we needed to secure full-time child care.

After four years of struggling to pay for basic needs and child care, it became clear that high school degrees and the limited career fields they offered would not be enough. We knew we needed better paying jobs and that the way to achieve this goal was through higher education. With the support of my husband, I began a new journey: obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

II. Going to School Full-Time Still Requires Full-Time Child Care: “My only option was to take out more student loans.”

I reduced my work hours from 40 to 32 per week and started school part-time at a community college. Doing so allowed me to keep our health insurance and maintain our child care spots. But after one year, I was offered a significantly large scholarship that would extend throughout my graduation on the terms that I attend college full-time.

Quitting my job to attend college full-time meant that our monthly income would be dramatically reduced—but we still had the same expenses, including child care. Someone had to watch the kids while I was at school! I supplemented resources using public services such as Medicaid and SNAP. At the time—in 2010, when state economies faced many budget cuts—the Colorado Childcare Assistance Program (CCAP) was on a freeze and child care resources were not available. There just wasn’t enough money for all families in Colorado that needed the assistance. I needed to find an alternative way to pay for child care, which at the time averaged about $800 per month through a home care provider.

Although the college I attended had a child care facility on campus, there was a long waiting list and most of the spots were taken by faculty and staff at the university. Furthermore, the cost of the on-campus child care facility, which would have been the most convenient option, was more than our family could afford. My husband’s paychecks went to rent, cars, gas, and other needs public assistance services couldn’t provide. My only option was to take out more in school loans to pay for child care.

The logistics of sorting out child care arrangements were time-consuming and often stressful, but eventually, I found reliable, affordable child care for the kids while I was at school or studying. I was also grateful the kids were not in harm and loved the people they spent time with when I couldn’t be around. I had earned a 4.0 GPA my junior year and made the Dean’s list. Everything seemed to be working out as I progressed through my journey to a degree. This felt like a huge accomplishment for someone who thought a college degree was impossible.

But beyond all this joy lurked a new reality: paying back all the student loan money I borrowed. For two years, I took out additional money from my school loans to pay for child care—and the money was adding up.

III. Dealing with Debt: “Half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone.”

By my senior year, I had earned 5 scholarships and various grants, which was enough to fully fund my senior year of college. I was relieved that I didn’t have to take out extra loan money to pay for school fees, but these scholarships and grants did not cover child care. To get through my senior year and graduate, I had to take out more student loans just for child care.

After graduation, I was glad to have achieved a goal that would benefit not only me as an individual, but also benefit my family and our future. A few months later, however, the reality of my student debt began to sink in. My total school loan debt was near $30,000, a rather small amount compared to other graduates, but I still hoped it would be less due to the size of the scholarships and grants I had received. Then I realized that half of my school loan debt was due to child care costs alone. As I stared at the numbers my only thought was, “My school loan debt would be so much less if I didn’t need childcare.” I often wonder how much more freeing it would be for the financial future of my family if I didn’t have that extra debt. The quicker I pay off my student loan debt, the sooner I will be able to better provide for my family.

Although there were several roadblocks along the way, I achieved my goal and am better able to provide for my family because of my education.  But even with a better paying job, I am still overwhelmed when I think about paying off my student loan debt. Loans were essential in paying for school and basic needs when I couldn’t, but it’s a debt that I must pay every month.

Andrea Fitch is a teacher in Colorado.


SPSI

Learn more about IWPR’s Student Parent Success Initiative, and read the new report, College Affordability for Low-Income Adults: Improving Returns on Investment for Families and Society.

 

As You Celebrate the 4th, Remember Why America’s Working Families Need Unions to Stay Strong

by Brigid O’Farrell

As you celebrate with your loved ones over the holiday, remember how unions have helped American families secure prosperity and opportunity, and why we should consider unions a basic form of democracy.

The decline of the American labor movement, now representing just 12 percent of the workforce, and the corresponding increase in inequality hurts working families. Whether a home health aide, teacher, electrician, or autoworker, you are less likely to have a voice at work. This means lower wages, fewer benefits, and less ability to care for your family. It also means less democracy in our country.

The union advantage for working families starts with higher wages. On average, union women earn 13 percent more per hour than women not in unions and this is especially true for low-wage jobs women hold. The union advantage for office cleaners, for example, is 28 percent. Collective bargaining also reduces the gender wage gap between women and men by half.

Higher wages are critical to the well being of working families, but not enough. The union advantage also includes better access to higher paying jobs, often through apprenticeship training, as well as access to paid sick days, short-term disability, family leave, better schedules, and child care.

Just last week, President Obama told his White House Summit on Working Families, that, “Family leave, childcare, workplace flexibility, a decent wage—these are not frills, they are basic needs… part of our bottom line as a society.” Labor was in the house: Over 250 union members and allies made their voices heard. Liz Shuler, Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, representing 57 unions and over 13 million members, and Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2.1 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU) highlighted union support for family friendly public policies and collective bargaining as a tried and true method for securing not only decent wages and safe working conditions, but for negotiating flexible schedules and paid leaves. For example:

Kay Thompson is the mother of four daughters who has worked at Macy’s flagship store on Herald Square in New York City for over 20 years. She is a proud member of Local 1-S, Retail, Wholesale & Department Store Union/UFCW. She told the audience that she was able to provide for her family with a flexible yet predictable schedule because of her union contract.

Connie Ashbrook, union elevator constructor and executive director of Oregon Tradeswomen, Inc., focused on the 50 percent of jobs that require science, technology, engineering or math skills (STEM), but don’t require a college degree. Women are capable and interested in skilled trade jobs, but still hold less than 3 percent of these occupations. Outreach, training and enforcing employment discrimination laws are policies that help her work with unions and contractors to increase the number of women in the trades.

Union members also gathered at the AFL-CIO headquarters the day before to share their stories at Working Families Speak Up!

Dina Yarmus is a hotel and restaurant worker who defended her healthcare plan through UNITEHERE Local 274 in Philadelphia. Joanne Hager is a construction laborer from Minneapolis and trainer for LiUNA Local 563. Being a tradeswoman transformed her life—a living wage, a pension plan, a union job. Connie Leak, president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women and UAW member, told other workers that this wasn’t just about boots on the ground, but about “heels, flats, and sneakers heading to the streets” to talk about working family issues and the importance of unions, collective bargaining, and public policy.

Working family polices are often a mix of public and private actions. California provides an example of how unions helped to secure a family friendly state policy that women and men now use to sustain their families, maintain their economic stability, and keep their jobs.

The United States is one of just three countries in the world without a paid family leave policy. California was the first state to take action to address this problem, now joined by New Jersey and Rhode Island.

Under the California Paid Family Leave Act employees pay into the insurance system regardless of the size of their employer and have access to six weeks of paid leave to care for new children or ill family members. Employers do not pay into the system, but have to accommodate the time off. The Labor Project for Working Families helped make paid leave in California a reality. They receive leadership and financial support from many unions and worked for years to help pass this bill. 

In Unfinished Business, Paid Family Leave in California and the Future of U.S. Work-Family Policy, professors Ruth Milkman and Eileen Appelbaum document labor’s role and their finding that there are almost no negative effects on business. Management executives talk about how good the program is for their companies. Many employees, however, are unaware that they pay into the fund and have access to the benefits. This is true in the building and construction industry where any kind of paid leave has not generally been available.

Krista Brooks and Johnathan Brooks, both apprentice electricians with IBEW Local 617 in San Mateo, CA, illustrate how having good apprenticeship jobs and a paid family leave policy are very important to families. Krista, one of the 2.6 percent of women in the skilled trades, just graduated from her apprenticeship program and is completing her work hours to reach journey-level status. Johnathan is a second year apprentice. Both parents were able to spend quality time with their newborn without sacrificing their much needed paychecks or their jobs.

The couple heard about paid family leave from other union members. Krista was able to take disability leave for part of her pregnancy and use paid family leave when her daughter was born. Johnathan was then able to take paid family leave in two phases. First he had two weeks right when the baby was born. A few weeks later when Krista went back to work he was able to take more time to bond with the new baby. The apprentices, their local union, and the contractors worked together maintaining insurance coverage and having jobs when the parents returned. They didn’t have their full salaries and things were tight, but paid family leave made a big difference.

While the number of women in the workforce has reached an historic proportion and more men are opting to stay home with children, the problems are not new. In 1963 President Kennedy released American Women, the report of his President’s Commission on the Status of Women. Fifty years ago the report noted that 70 other western industrialized countries offered paid maternity leave and called for the U.S. to do the same. They documented the urgent need for quality, affordable child care. The commission cited the concentration of women in low-wage jobs as the primary cause of the wage difference between women and men. They called for improved vocational education, counseling for non-traditional jobs, and an end employment discrimination against women.

The Commission stressed that the value of unions and collective bargaining had already been well established and secured through the National Labor Relations Act. They called for states to do the same. Eleanor Roosevelt, chair of the President’s Commission, wrote that “There are only two ways to bring about protection of the workers…legislation and unionization.” She later told the United Nations Human Rights Commission that “the right to form and join trades unions [is] an essential element of freedom.” For her, unions represented democracy in the workplace, with all of its strengths and weaknesses, and were a model for democracy in the country and around the world. 

Maybe it’s time for a summit on the importance of unions and collective bargaining for working families and for our democracy. But in Eleanor Roosevelt’s words, “We can’t just talk. We have got to act.” 

This post originally appeared on AlterNet. Brigid O’Farrell’s most recent book is She Was One of Us:  Eleanor Roosevelt and the American Worker.  With Betty Freidan she edited Beyond Gender: The New Politics of Work and Family. See www.bofarrell.net.

Guest Blog Post: Mentoring Program Inspires Girls to Explore Careers in STEM

Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Inc. of Alameda County®

By Nadine Ann Skinner

In March, IWPR released a report showing that the number of women pursuing science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields at community colleges was declining, despite growing opportunities for gainful employment in these fields. Encouraging women to pursue STEM careers can start by inspiring girls and young women to explore these fields. Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Incorporated of Alameda County® (Girls Inc.) and contributed this guest post on mentoring programs for girls with her organization.

Last week I had the opportunity to take a group of teenage girls to Genentech to meet some of the women who worked there. Walking in, the normally boisterous girls were quiet, subdued by the large campus and the number of mentors waiting to speak with them. As the girls joined activities led by the mentors, I spoke with the two women engineers who had invited us. “Why did you decide to become engineers?” I asked. The two women thought for a moment, and then they both answered that their fathers were engineers and that inspired them to become engineers.

The girls in the program I work for are from Oakland and San Leandro, California. Most of the girls will be the first member of their family to go to college. They live in neighborhoods plagued by violence and attend underperforming schools. Who is there to inspire them to become engineers or scientists?

Even with the great gains women have made in employment women are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. In elementary school, girls and boys express similar interests in math and science. But by college, fewer women pursue STEM majors and by college graduation, “men outnumber women in nearly every science and engineering field, and in some, such as physics, engineering, and computer science, the difference is dramatic, with women earning only 20 percent of bachelor’s degrees.” In STEM graduate programs and careers, women are even more underrepresented.

Underrepresentation in the STEM workforce is a particular challenge for minority ethnic groups. Underrepresented minority groups comprised 28.5 percent of the population in 2006, but only comprised 9.1 percent of college-educated Americans in science and engineering occupations. In addition, minority women only represent 11 percent of women in the entire STEM workforce. Editor’s note: IWPR’s research analysis found that a very small proportion of associate’s degrees in STEM fields are awarded to women of color, including African American women (3.3 percent); Hispanic women (2.2 percent); and Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander women (1.3 percent).

Part of the reason girls are not pursuing STEM careers is the continuing perception that girls and women are not as good at math and science. Mentoring has proven to be an effective tool to encourage girls and young women to succeed in STEM in school by combating the stereotype about girls’ ability to succeed in math and science. Mentoring and exposing girls to role models, women who prove to girls that they can be successful in STEM, can inspire girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

At the end of our visit to Genentech, the girls participated in a speed mentoring session, where they had a chance to interview women in a variety of STEM careers. The room was loud, filled with laughter and smiles, as the girls asked the mentors about their careers.

Eventually it was time to leave. As we walked to the van the girls were talking about the women that they met. “I want to be a toxicologist,” said one girl. “I want to be a geneticist,” said another girl. “Do you think that might let me have an internship at Genentech?” asked a third. I smiled, knowing that whatever career these girls ultimately choose, meeting these amazing role models ignited the girls’ interest in STEM careers.

Nadine Ann Skinner is a Program Manager at Girls Incorporated of Alameda County® (Girls Inc.). Girls Inc’s mission is to inspire all girls to be strong, smart and bold. For over 52 years, Girls Inc. has responded to the specific needs of girls in the most underserved communities of San Francisco’s East Bay through a continuum of academic enrichment programs and counseling services in over 48 elementary, middle and high schools in Alameda County and two service centers in Oakland and San Leandro. Programs challenge girls to explore their potential, develop life skills, ensure college and career success, and expand their sense of what is possible. With an innovative educational approach incorporating local needs into research-based curricula, Girls Inc. has established itself as one of the Bay Area’s leading providers of supplemental education, reaching nearly 7,500 girls and their families annually.

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.

Where’s My 20?

By Sara Manzano-Díaz, Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau

This is a guest blog post on the important theme of Equal Pay Day. The struggle to gain equality in pay for women is ongoing, and affects women and their families.


As the economy of the United States slowly recovers, one faction of the population is still struggling for wage equality—women. The American workforce today is more female and more diverse. Women account for nearly half of our nation’s workers. Yet, women on average still earn 20 percent less than their male counterparts.

Since passage of the landmark Equal Pay Act in 1963, the pay gap has steadily narrowed by just one-half a cent each year. Over the past five decades the landscape of pay equity for women has remained one of “haves” and “have nots.” This is particularly true for women of color. Data indicates that the wages of women of color significantly lag that of whites.

According to recent reports by the U. S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, women who were full-time wage and salary workers had median weekly earnings of $657 compared to $819 for men. When you look at the wages of African American and Hispanic women, however, the wage gap widens.

For example, African American women earn about 70 cents and Latinas about 60 cents of every dollar paid to all men. These aren’t simply statistics, they’re real numbers that affect the pocketbooks of women who face the day-to-day bread and butter issues of taking care of their families.

So, why does the pay gap matter? The pay gap shines a bright light on the disparity of income available to maintain the households of American families, particularly those of single women and women of color. For millions of working women, the gap means 20 percent less income to pay for housing, gas to get to work, utilities, food, college education for children, and retirement savings.

Over a 40-year career, a woman cumulatively loses nearly $380,000 in earnings. For the average working woman that is almost $150 a week in lost household income to sustain their families. Equal pay is not just a woman’s issue—it’s a family issue.

As a woman and a public servant, I am proud of the Labor Department’s role in advocating for issues that positively improve equal pay for women and their families. And, we want to assure women that this administration will continue to enforce the laws that protect wages, to level the playing field for employers who play by the rules, and to work toward fixing policies that impact women in the workplace.

And as a working woman, I know what my missing 20 percent has cost me over my lifetime. What has that 20 percent cost your family?

More information on the impact of the pay gap is available at http://www.dol.gov/wb/equal-pay-toolkit-20110412.htm.

Sara Manzano-Díaz is Director of the U. S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

More Research Needed to Help Prevent Street Harassment

Woman walking down streetBy Holly Kearl

This April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Primary prevention for sexual violence involves education and the creation of safe environments, including on the streets of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. One important issue that seldom receives attention from researchers or the media is the street harassment that happens to women walking down sidewalks, taking public transportation, and in other public places. Guest blogger Holly Kearl, author and Program Manager with the American Association of University Women (AAUW), outlines the impact of street harassment on women, and calls for additional measures to effectively address and prevent this type of activity.

When it comes to creating policies that address the sexual harassment that happens in public places between strangers, termed street harassment, the phrase that comes to mind is catch-22. Let me explain.

Four years ago, I wrote my master’s thesis at George Washington University on street harassment. I examined how women were using websites to address and deal with street harassment in lieu of legal regulations or useful policies. While conducting a literature review, I was shocked to learn that few street harassment studies exist, few academic articles had been written on the topic, and almost no books had been published.

These discoveries led me to write my own book about street harassment, published last year by Praeger. As part of the book research, I informally surveyed more than 900 people from 23 countries and 45 U.S. states. Ninety-nine percent of the women had experienced street harassment, and not just whistling or honking. More than 80 percent had been the target of sexually explicit comments and vulgar gestures, 75 percent had been followed, over half had been groped, more than one-third had faced public masturbation, and one-fourth had been assaulted by a male stranger.

In the United States, there have only been two non-campus-based studies about street harassment, both of which showed it was the experience of 100 percent of the women and the types of harassment women experienced were similar to my findings. Both studies were conducted in the 1990s, one in Indianapolis and the other in the California Bay Area.

The statistics from my study, even though they are informal, were shocking. What shocked me even more was realizing how many women had changed their lives because of actual or feared street harassment. Most of my survey respondents reported “on guard” behaviors while in public on at least a monthly basis, including constantly assessing their surroundings, avoiding making eye contact, and pretending to talk on a cell phone.

The next most common type of behavior was that which restricted their access to public spaces, such as taking alternate routes because of harassers, avoiding being in public alone, and paying for a gym membership rather than exercising outside.

Most alarming, a percentage of women had made significant life decisions because of harassment. Around 20 percent had moved to a new neighborhood because of harassers in the area and almost 10 percent had changed jobs because of harassers along the commute.

When I discovered these results, it became clear to me that street harassment has a negative economic impact on women and it impedes women’s equality.

The economic impact is even clearer when you read women’s stories on sites like my blog Stop Street Harassment and the 25 Hollaback websites. On these sites, women share how they pay for taxis instead of taking public transportation after dark, drive three blocks instead of walking, skip evening networking events, and avoid or drop out of night classes.

After four years of learning, writing, and speaking about this issue, I know there will never be gender equality until street harassment ends. I also understand that policymakers are hard-pressed to make significant changes without data that illustrates a problem and without research suggesting policies that could improve the problem.

This is where we reach the catch-22.

To truly address street harassment, we need citywide, statewide, and/or nationwide studies to give us concrete data about its prevalence, the impact it has on women’s lives, and why it happens (and thus what we can do to prevent it). Then policies can follow.

These important studies require funding to be conducted well (I did my informal survey online, with a shoestring budget). Funders often hesitate to put money behind an initiative that has not been proven to be a problem. Street harassment hasn’t been proven to be a problem because there are so few studies. There are so few studies because there is no funding…and back and forth and back and forth.

This is unacceptable. In the United States, we take pride in our country being the land of the free, but that’s not true for women. Girls routinely face harassment on their way to school and when they are out with friends, and women routinely face harassment on their way to work or while running errands – particularly if they walk or take public transportation. They should not be penalized because of this catch-22.

It’s time to break the cycle. It’s time for a smart funder to realize that the stories, informal data, and studies from the 1990s support the need  for new, comprehensive studies that can inform new policies—and help make our streets safe and free for girls and women, as well as for boys and men.

 

Holly Kearl is the American Association of University Women Program Manager and the author of Stop Street Harassment: Making Public Places Safe and Welcoming for Women (Praeger Publishers, 2010). Holly has written articles about street harassment for publications including the Guardian, Forbes.com, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine Blog.

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