Over the past few months, there's been much debate in Washington regarding income inequality and economic mobility in the United States. As you would expect, such political discourse in the nation's capital almost always focuses on what the federal government can or should do to address the problem.
That debate, however, shortchanges the 50 states and the District of Columbia. State governments have significant authority and opportunity to assist low-income working families with children... if they have the will.
A recent report from the Working Poor Families Project found some 39 percent of the 10 million low-income working families in the U.S. are headed by working mothers, and the economic conditions for these families have worsened significantly since the onset of the Great Recession in 2007. In fact, the share of female-headed working families who are low-income has increased from 54 percent in 2007 to 58 percent in 2012, putting more families and children at risk. In total, we're talking about 4.1 million low-income families headed by working mothers with their 8.5 million children.
There are many factors keeping working mothers in poverty, ranging from a persistent gender gap in earnings to a lack of skills and opportunity to access many higher-paying, higher-demand occupations, especially in blue collar and technical fields. As a result, too many women workers do not have jobs that offer benefits such as health insurance, paid sick leave or, in some occupations, even wage protections.
The good news is that some states already have taken steps to help low-income working mothers. Among the most meaningful reforms have been those that improve access to post-secondary education by providing financial aid to part-time students along with affordable child care; bolster the quality of low-wage jobs by raising the minimum wage and assuring all workers have paid sick leave and paid family leave; and implement a strong network of work supports such as a state-refundable Earned Income Tax Credits (EITC) and expanded Medicaid eligibility.
Getting states to act is not automatically solved by bundling federal resources into a block grant. In fact, a number of states across the country have already demonstrated the willingness to act on specific state policy issues. For example, Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin have established educational "bridge" programs so that working mothers can earn occupational skills and credentials valued in the labor market. In Mississippi, a Dropout Recovery Fund has been established to support community colleges that serve disconnected young adults in need of a high school diploma.
Maryland and Vermont have long maintained state commissions focused on rewriting laws and policies to promote equal pay for women compared to men. Connecticut became the first state in 2011 to mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave for most workers. And in 26 states and the District of Columbia, millions of low-income working mothers are likely to secure affordable health care as Medicaid expands under the Affordable Care Act.
These states are on the right path and are setting the course. All 50 states have a primary responsibility to create and support strong communities, which can only happen when our nation's families have the support they need to become economically secure. With the political will and the right policies, state governments can address these challenges and strengthen their economies and neighborhoods.
Brandon Roberts is a manager of the Working Poor Families Project, a national initiative to help working families that's supported by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Joyce and Kresge Foundations. The new research, entitled "Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Economic Future," can be found on the WPFP website at http://www.workingpoorfamilies.org.