As the number of local women in poverty continues to climb, a new strategy created by the Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham strives to reverse this trend.
The strategy involves a program dubbed the Collaboration Institute, a biennial competition launched in 2013 that pits local projects against one another in a competition for resources which, no matter who wins, will bring benefits to low-income women in the area.
“Since 2009 single moms in poverty have gone from 39 percent of all single mothers to 45 percent. There’s an upward trend of single moms falling into poverty and it’s only getting worse,” said Jeanne Jackson, president and CEO of the Women’s Fund.
For women’s advocates around Birmingham, the Collaboration Institute offered hope after better outcomes never materialized. According to Jackson, the traditional models, although noble, were not working.
“As a foundation, we could have just sat back and took grants in, but we felt that we needed to be proactive rather than reactive. We felt that we almost needed to be a catalyst for change,” Jackson said.
In February, the nonprofit’s Collaboration Institute awarded grants to groups fighting poverty; Project Vision and Smile each won $25,000 for startup costs and $8,000 to hire additional help. Two other finalists, Building Brains and Bank Accounts and Beyond Financial Aid, received $20,000 from family foundations and other donors.
Project Vision, a joint effort between Jasper Area Family Services Center, Inc., Walker County DHR, Walker County Coalition for the Homeless and Bevill State Community College, was given a grant from Vulcan Materials. The program aims to help local low-income women in Walker County, many of whom have a felony record, prepare to apply for a certificate program at Bevill State.
SMILE, a project team including YWCA Central Alabama, Jefferson State Community College, Jeffrey R. Gilbert, DMD and Faith Walkers Church, was awarded the BlueCross BlueShield of Alabama Collaboration in Healthcare Award. The SMILE project seeks to help low-income, single mothers in finding employment, particularly through a dental assistance program that is done collaboratively through Gilbert’s office and the dental assistant program at Jefferson State.
Founding the Fund
Although the Institute has only entered its third year, the Women’s Fund recently celebrated its 20th birthday. The fund, which covers five counties in central Alabama, was founded in 1996 by Lin Carleen. Twenty women, led by Cameron Vowell, Ph.D, each gave $20,000 to establish a foundation solely focused on women and girls. Carleen’s vision for the Women’s Fund arose from two sources — her childhood and conversations with working women.
“[The Women’s Fund] grew out of what happened to me as a girl; my father didn’t think women were very important,” said Carleen. “My brother was encouraged to go to school and get into a career, but I was not because, according to my father, I would only be a mother and a housewife.”
Carleen remembers the onset of the women’s movement. For her, giving educational opportunities to girls in fields such as science, engineering and technology boosts women forward. Education is a must for today’s mothers, she added.
“If the mother is able to get an education, she becomes a role model for her children. This goes for both boys and girls and this helps to break the cycle of poverty,” Carleen added.
The Women’s Fund broke off from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham in 2011, said Jackson, who joined the organization that same year after retiring as director of the Hess Center for Leadership and Service at Birmingham-Southern College. According to Jackson, the nonprofit works on the basis of “from women, for women.”
“Over 80 percent of the money we raise goes back to women in the community. Last year we invested $500,000 in programs for women in the Greater Birmingham area,” she said.
Investing is an integral part of undoing the current trend toward poverty, she added, because it allows for more hands-on projects to instigate change. However, knowing why, when and where to invest are all important, she also explained.
To understand how to best solve the problems facing local women in poverty, the Women’s Fund performed a study entitled “Stepping Up for Women’s Economic Security.” The study was jointly conducted in 2012 by the foundation and Michael Howell-Moroney, Ph.D.
Something Needs to Change
For Jackson, three things became clear after the report — single motherhood creates a large chance that women will be in poverty, education is pivotal in breaking out and the cost of childcare impedes mobility.
The report found that 63 percent of all households in poverty in the area between 2008 and 2010 were women living alone or single mothers with children. In 2011, 17 percent of all costs were designated to childcare, the highest out of all other criteria, which included housing, food, taxes and transportation.
The MIT Living Wage Calculator assesses that to cover expenses for a one adult/two child household in 2016, an individual needs to earn $52,031 a year. According to the Center for Poverty Research University of California, Davis, the current yearly income, at $7.25 per hour, is $15,080.
Jackson and her colleagues felt that a new model needed to be adopted in order for change to occur. The Women’s Fund looked at national models for guidance and landed on the Ascend program, based out of the Aspen Institute.
According to Ascend, there is a significant correlation between educational level and poverty. The American Community Survey reported that 15 percent of women with just a high school level education are in poverty. Comparatively, 12.5 percent of women with some college and only 4.2 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree fall below the poverty line.
“The most successful way they are seeing nationally to end poverty is to simultaneously educate the mother and her children,” Jackson said. “What they are finding is that when the mom goes back to school and the child is in a program like Head Start, the benefits are outstanding. The mom does not just have the child with someone convenient who’s at the house; the child is having an educational environment every day.”
Monique Jones, a former participant in one of the Women’s Fund outreach programs, saw firsthand how poverty affected her interaction with her children. “We weren’t in a stable home and I didn’t have a steady job. My children and I were separated every night,” she said.
Prior to enrolling into the program, Jones had started college, but did not finish. Without a solid education, Jones worked part time at Target and even lived in her car for a while. During this time, her son, B.J., spent most nights with his father.
However, Jones’s prospects changed for the better, when she learned about the Women’s Fund through a text from a friend, and enrolled. B.J. and her daughter, Shaniyah, were given childcare while she worked through the program. She graduated at the top of her class. Jones now works as a pharmaceutical technician at Walgreens and will be studying nursing at Jefferson State Community College this fall.
“[The Women’s Fund] got me back on track in my life,” Jones said. “I was able to get a steady job and a stable home. One of the best things I had was support. My children saw mommy go to school and it meant a lot for them. We were all going to school. They were excited about all of us getting to learn.”
Over the past two years, 214 women have been helped through certificate programs by the Women’s Fund. These programs include pharmaceutical technician programs, vision assistant and dental assistant programs. Of the 214 women, at least 118 have higher employment or have received a promotion, said Jackson. Their children have also been affected; 310 of their children are now in child care programs.
Repeating the Cycle
However, according to Jackson, there are still practices that are plaguing single women in poverty, especially payday loans. “You go in for a $500 loan. Then if you come back in two weeks, they start charging you phenomenal amounts of interest. It’s just absolutely immoral,” Jackson said. “It is an abusive practice for low-income people in Alabama.”
In Alabama, for a 14-day $100 loan, payday lenders can charge up to 456.25 percent APR, according to PayDay Loan Consumer Information. Jackson has tried for years to get the Alabama Legislature to pass legislation to reduce the cap.
“We have been working with the legislature to get a bill to lower the interest rate; we’d like it to be 36 percent. We have worked on it for three years, but we can’t get the legislature to move on it,” Jackson said.
Senate Bill 91, introduced Feb. 2, 2016, is one such piece of legislation that seeks to review and reassess payday lending practices. If passed, the bill would expand licensure requirements to include services through mail, telephone, Internet, mobile devices and in person and would further regulate the payday lending loan system.
Other states, North Carolina and Arkansas for instance, have already passed payday lending APR caps, a 36 and 17 percent small loan rate, respectively, as reported by PayDay Loan Consumer Information.
“All our work in ending a woman’s life in poverty, is for naught if that woman needs a short term loan and gets in huge debt to pay back a payday loan,” said Jackson. As of March, the Alabama Senate bill has been placed under a motion for further consideration.
Alabama’s struggles with women’s issues reaches beyond payday loan practices. In early 2016, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research at George Washington University conducted a report on the status of women in the South and ranked 14 southern states based on health, workforce, pay and women in the political system. Alabama received a D- meaning that of all 14 states in the region, Alabama ranked the lowest.
“We couldn’t even say thank goodness for Mississippi,” Jackson said. “It’s disheartening, but the status of women is just not getting any better. That’s why we felt that we had to try something different.
“Clearly people are doing good things for children and women in this community, but the statistics are getting worse. We looked at the research, saw the problem, looked for a national model and we started Collaboration Institute and we fund it,” she said.
Even with the organization’s new brainchild, Jackson worries about the pitfalls women face when it comes to getting out of poverty. The “cliff effect” — when individuals become economically dependent on programs such as SNAP or when a person works harder but is financially less stable — is one of those concerns.
As new opportunities to improve women’s welfare unfold, Jackson hopes that Birmingham and areas around it do not continue to repeat the same mistakes that have kept low-income women shackled in poverty.
“People are seeing the same statistics we’re seeing; people are seeing that life is getting worse for single moms, and if it’s worse for single moms then the chance their kids are going to move out of poverty is pretty slim,” Jackson said. “So you’re just repeating that cycle again and again.”