Helping Low-income Working Families

ECM’s New England Campaign Director MaryLou Beaver referenced the new report from The Working Poor Families Project, Low-Income Working Mothers and State Policy: Investing for a Better Economic Futurein her latest newsletter, Granite State Rumblings.

A new report from The Working Poor Families Project states that in 2012, there were more than 10 million low-income working families with children in the United States, and 39 percent (4.1million) were headed by working mothers struggling to support 8.5 million children. The economic conditions for these families have worsened since the onset of the recession; between 2007 and 2012, there was a four percentage-point increase in the share of female-headed working families that are low-income.

The report defines “low-income working families” as earning no more than twice the federal poverty income threshold. In 2012, the low-income threshold for a family of three with two children was $36,966.

Addressing challenges specific to these families will increase their economic opportunity, boost the economy and strengthen the fabric of communities across the nation.

Public policy can play a critical role in our future prosperity by reversing this trend and improving outcomes for low-income working mothers. While the federal government can play a role, of particular interest in this report is how state governments can best invest in helping working mothers gain the education, skills, and supports necessary to become economically secure and provide a strong economic future for their children.

Here are a few of the key points from the report:


  • Increasingly, education is the key to success in the labor force and is a major factor driving the growing economic gap between lower-income and higher-income families. However, relatively few low-income working mothers have the training and skills needed to earn decent wages.
  • Education can provide a pathway out of poverty, but postsecondary education and skills training are often out of reach for low-income working mothers.
  • Access to postsecondary education can be limited due to a number of factors such as tuition costs, transportation issues and class schedules that conflict with standard working hours.
  • Lack of affordable, high-quality child care also limits the ability of working mothers to both enter and succeed in college.

Low Income, Fewer Benefits

  • A key barrier for working mothers is the gender gap in earnings. In 2012, women earned just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gap that has persisted over the past ten years.
  • The primary challenge for working mothers is their concentration in low-wage jobs. Women remain significantly underrepresented in many high- paying, high-demand occupations, especially in blue-collar and technical fields.
  • Women in low-wage work are often in jobs that do not provide benefits such as health insurance paid sick leave, or, in some occupations, even wage protections.
  • The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), guarantees the availability of unpaid sick leave for just over half of U.S. workers. But for those not covered, and/or who are living from paycheck to paycheck, unpaid leave is generally not a viable option since staying at home to take care of a sick child may lead to greater economic pressures, including the loss of a job.

For maximum impact on this problem, the report says state governments should focus on policies that are sensitive to the needs of working mothers and to all parents in general by:

  • Increasing access and success for low- income working mothers in postsecondary education.
    • Create and expand tuition assistance programs that make postsecondary education accessible for low-income working mothers.
    • Allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public post-secondary schools.
    • Better utilize existing program resources of TANF, Adult Education and WIA to support the success of working mothers in postsecondary education.
    • Provide increased and dedicated academic and personal supports for low-income working mothers, including affordable, high-quality child care and other strategies targeted to promote student parent success.
    • Invest in programs that help pregnant women and young mothers achieve a high school credential and transition to postsecondary education.
    • Restructure adult basic education and community college programs in accordance with bridge program and career pathway concepts to better accommodate low- income working mothers, including English Language Learners who may be seeking an occupation credential or degree.
    • Take steps to encourage and support low-income working mothers to pursue career and technical education/training programs in nontraditional fields such as STEM, manufacturing and transportation by crafting state policies to take advantage of opportunities in such programs as Perkins, WIA and apprenticeships.
  • Improving the quality of low-wage jobs.
    • Raise the state minimum wage and minimum wage for employees who receive tips and index them to inflation to help meet basic household needs.
    • Implement and enforce paid maternity leave and paid sick leave policies to ensure all working mothers can take paid time off when they or their children are sick.
  • Creating a strong network of work supports to strengthen female-headed, low-income families and assure basic family needs are met.
    • Provide a state refundable EITC for low- income families, including non-resident fathers who pay their child support, to help make low-wage work pay.
    • Support the expansion of Medicaid eligibility under the Affordable Care Act to ensure low-wage working mothers have access to affordable health care.
    • Improve access to quality child care for low-income families during work and school.
    • Maintain a strong commitment to work supports (e.g., SNAP, Medicaid as well as EITC and child care) and structureeligibility levels to avoid “cliff” effects with the goal of improving family well-being.

Launched in 2002 and currently supported by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, Joyce and Kresge foundations, The Working Poor Families Project is a national initiative that works to improve these economic conditions.