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Study Tracks Pay That Women Need to Escape Welfare

Aid: Mothers must earn two or three times the minimum wage just to cover housing, child care, transportation and medical needs, survey reports. Groups call for training and jobs programs.

January 28, 1997|VIRGINIA ELLIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — For welfare mothers in urban California to escape the need for government assistance, they must find jobs that pay two or three times the minimum wage, according to a new study using federal data.

In Los Angeles, the survey found that a mother with one toddler would need to earn $13.07 an hour just to cover the costs of housing, child care, transportation and medical needs. A mother with two children--the average in welfare families--would have to earn from $13.43 to $17.10 an hour, depending on the age of the children.

Using U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data as well as child-care cost surveys, the study by the Washington-based Wider Opportunities for Women, a nonprofit women's research and advocacy organization, tracked costs county by county to determine what welfare mothers would need to earn to become truly self-sufficient.

A coalition of women's organizations presented the findings to legislators Monday at a news conference and hearing in an attempt to underscore the need to place welfare mothers in crafts and professions that will pay enough for them to support their children.

They urged lawmakers to use the study as the foundation for devising training and job programs for welfare mothers who are being required by a new federal law to move off government assistance and into the workplace.

Finding enough jobs and jobs that pay enough is the pivotal challenge of the welfare reform effort, which severely limits the number of years recipients can receive government aid without working.

Irma Herrera, executive director of the San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, said that if jobs don't pay wages that are high enough to meet basic needs, families will only be pushed deeper into poverty by the reforms.

"We have to do more than reform the safety net; we have to build a ladder into the economy," said Bob Friedman, founder of the Corporation for Enterprise Development, also in San Francisco.

The coalition said it was focusing its job recommendations on women because 85% of the adults on welfare are women.

Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for Gov. Pete Wilson, said that while the governor supports the idea of recipients continuing their education and training, he still believes the first and fundamental goal is to get them into jobs--even minimum wage jobs.

The jobs themselves, she said, are the best training ground and the most effective springboard to promotion and higher pay.

"The welfare program is a temporary, short-term safety net to help people get back on their feet," she said. "That's what it was originally intended to be and that's what we need to get it back to."

The women's groups, however, said that in redesigning the welfare system, government leaders need to do more to ensure that women earn enough income to support their families.

They suggested several strategies, including provisions that would allow low-income families to begin to accumulate assets, training programs that improve literacy along with jobs skills, training and support for starting businesses, and programs that improve access to nontraditional employment.

Emma Lechuga, executive director of Somos Hermanas Unidas, a nonprofit training program in San Bernardino and Rialto, said many of the higher-wage jobs in crafts and trades are now held almost exclusively by men. She said women need to be trained in plumbing, welding, pipe fitting, electrical work and other building trades so they can get access to higher wages.

Angie Martinez, the mother of three children who was forced by a divorce to go on welfare, said she eschewed the clerical jobs that normally go to women and opted instead to undergo training to become an electrician's apprentice so she could earn more.

With starting pay at $8.62 an hour, she said she was able to get off welfare in less than six months and has now worked her way up to $11.84 an hour. She is five months away, she said, from her next raise, which will bring her pay to $13.88 an hour. In three years when she has finished the night school courses that will lead to her becoming a journeyman electrician, Martinez said, she will be eligible for pay boosts to $24 an hour.

"I don't know of a lot of occupations that will pay a woman $24 a hour," she said.

Cindy Marano, executive director of Wider Opportunities for Women, said her organization's study of the wages women need to keep their families out of poverty showed that in most counties in California "a full-time minimum-wage job doesn't come close to making them self-sufficient."

Federal and state minimum-wage levels are currently $4.75 an hour. In March, the minimum wage in California will rise to $5, in September to $5.15 and in March 1998 to $5.75.

Marano said the study by Diana Pearce, a former visiting scholar at Stanford University and an expert on women in poverty, tried to look at all of the variables that would affect the earning needs of welfare recipients who have children.

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