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Conquering the 'Bag Lady Nightmare'

November 03, 1985|JANICE MALL

One of every two working women suffers from the "bag lady nightmare"--a fear that at some time in her life she will become destitute--according to a national survey conducted by Working Woman magazine.

What is remarkable about the figure is that the women who answered the survey--4,000 Working Woman readers--were primarily college-educated women who held managerial jobs and had household mean incomes of $59,910.

Or perhaps it is not so remarkable. Bonnie Sivard, a personal finance specialist who wrote the article about the survey published in the magazine's November issue, pointed out that the vision of poverty around the corner "is not a neurotic hang-up, unfortunately, but a bona-fide fear." One in five American women over 65 does live in poverty.

Teen-age girls do not relate to being 65. They don't even relate to being 30, said Mindy Bingham, director of the Santa Barbara Girls Club and originator of an innovative program to help teens plan a future that will not include poverty.

As director of the Girls Club for 12 years, Bingham said one of the greatest problems she saw was that young girls have no awareness of one of the most striking realities of our time: that they are likely to have to support themselves and perhaps a family at some time in their lives.

"The women's movement has not filtered down below the age of 18," Bingham said. The majority of teen-age girls believes that they will grow up, marry and stay home with their children and that their husbands will take care of them. The statistics belie that view: almost half of all women with children under a year old work outside their homes, and two-thirds of employed women have no choice--they work because of economic necessity. Since 1965, the number of female-headed families living in poverty has increased by 70%.

The Girls Club began to introduce programs such as visits to college campuses. "We took girls who had never seen a college, who had no idea that they had these choices," Bingham said.

The Fourth R

However, by the late 1970s, "it became obvious that we had to do more than surface things to change girls' attitudes," she said. The result was a class in Santa Barbara high schools and a workbook called "Choices." Bingham calls the program the "fourth R"--reality.

The book and the program were so successful that more than 100,000 copies have been sold in the U.S. and overseas, with proceeds going to the Santa Barbara Girls Club. The class has been introduced in high schools all over the country--at one San Diego high school it is required. And the program has recently been expanded to include teen-age boys who use a companion book, also written by Bingham and colleagues, called "Challenges."

The book and class require teen-agers to realistically plan their futures. It starts by asking each student to project her life style when she is 28 years old. ("We tried 30, and they didn't relate to that age," Bingham said. For some reason, teens were able to imagine being 28.) The students envision all aspects of their lives at 28--from marriage and children to the type of housing and car they want and where they'd want to go on vacations.

The plan for family is the same for almost every girl who has been through the program, Bingham said: At the age of 28, almost all girls say they hope to be married and have two pre-school children, a boy and a girl, the boy born first. Youngsters of all socioeconomic levels say they intend to own a house. "Kids are so programmed--scripted very early--that this is what their life will be like," Bingham said.

After determining what they want, using newspaper advertising and other information, the students plan in detail how much their desired life styles will cost: house payments, car payments, utilities, insurance, food, clothing, entertainment, vacations, etc. By the time they get to entertainment, "they begin to get nervous," Bingham said. "They see the figures (monthly cost for what they believe they need and desire) adding up." Bingham, who said she has her own 10-year-old daughter write the checks for all the household bills each month, said most teens have no idea what things like utilities or clothing cost, even though teen-age girls spend most of their discretionary income on clothes.

The last step, after calculating the cost of the life style they envision for themselves, is to have the students use the classified ads to find jobs that they believe they could train for and hold by the age of 28 that would pay the gross salary needed to support the chosen life.

A Decision to Make

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