Illinois Issues: Why Are Women Poor?

Jul 16, 2015

Nearly half of Illinois children in households headed by single women live in poverty — compared with just over a quarter of children in households headed by single men.

Reasons abound to explain why women with children are the largest demographic within the impoverished population in Illinois and the nation. The complications of caregiving. Gender-based pay inequity. Low-paying wages for many jobs held primarily by women. Discrimination. Federal and state policies that affect low-income workers.

That knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for the women who live it.

“It’s a struggle, really a struggle,” says Magdalena Zylinska, a 43-year-old single mother living in west suburban Elmwood Park. She supports a family of four on the roughly $2,500 a month she earns as a housekeeper. That income, says the Polish immigrant: “Is just enough to keep us going from check to check. If people cancel without notice, it makes a significant dent in the income we earn in a month. It is difficult for us to pay the bills.” 

She is far from alone. The poverty rate for single women with children in Illinois and the nation is at 43.1 percent, according to U.S. Census data. Poverty rates for Illinois children in single female-headed households are 48 percent — as compared to 26 percent for those in single male-headed households. For children under the age of 6 in female-headed households, the poverty rate is 56 percent. And the rates are higher for most minority groups. 

For many, problems are compounded by complicating factors that come with being a poor single mother, such as the erratic availability of reliable child care and the lack of benefits such as paid sick time. “A lot of it is we don’t have a society that respects women and their caregiving responsibilities,” says Wendy Pollack, director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project for the Chicago-based Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. “Certainly women are making choices. When you talk about women with children in particular, they obviously bear the burden of most of the caregiving responsibilities and so their choices of jobs and where they can work, and what hours they can work — those are choices they have to do to accommodate what is good for their kids.” 

Take for example Shannon Melquist, a 34-year-old single mother of three who has been unable to work since her special needs twin boys were born three and-a-half years ago. “I have so much to deal with my kids; basically my title is medical mom,” says Melquist, who lives in southwest suburban Orland Hills. “That’s my job — to get my boys healthy and keep them healthy. With their issues, it’s not safe for them to go into something like a daycare or whatnot.” She also has a debilitating condition of her own called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissues. 

Tough choices are left for women with children who live in poverty like Melquist, who is also raising a 12-year-old daughter. She recalls facing repeated job rejections during her pregnancy more than a decade ago. Since that time, Illinois passed a law barring on-the-job discrimination against pregnant women.  

Shannon Melquist doesn't work because of the need to care for twins Carter and Charlie. Right: her daughter, Paige
Credit Shannon Melquist

“I don’t have a credit card and why? I don’t have the money. If I don’t have the money, credit is just going to get me it trouble,’’ says Melquist, who recently split up with the boys’ father, a boyfriend of a decade. “If I have $20 in my pocket and it’s pay a student loan or put gas in the car, it’s going to go for the gas. I mean that’s just how it is. … I need to pay an electric bill — the electric bill is just going to have to wait a little because the kids need shoes. That’s kind of how I’ve lived my life.” 

Caring for a child comes with a cost that is often required for single women but difficult for them to bear. “It’s a huge issue single women face,’’ says Jessica Milli, a researcher for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Something that really compounds that is the huge issue single women face: Child care costs are incredibly high and often more than a quarter of annual earnings.” The situation is worse in Illinois than many other states because of higher-than-average child care costs, Milli says. The average annual child-care cost is as much as $13,000, which is 31 percent of the average woman’s full-time income in Illinois. “Single women are faced with ‘Do I pay this high cost, or do I work part-time?’” Milli says. The Shriver Center’s Pollack says single women often find themselves in lower paying jobs because of that dilemma.

Doris Houston, an associate professor social work at Illinois State University, says that because child-rearing and other care-giving responsibilities continue to disproportionately fall to women, they go in and out of the workforce more than men. “They’re required to leave, and when they come back, it’s just harder to make up that time.”

Enter the gender pay gap. Multiple studies have shown women make less than men — for the same type of work, with the same levels of education and experience. One example is nursing, where the workforce is predominantly made up of women. A study earlier this year published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that male nurses’ pay topped that of females by nearly $7,700 per year in outpatient settings and nearly $3,900 in hospitals. That’s after controlling for age, race, marital status and children in the home. “If we would close the gender wage gap. We would cut in half the poverty for working women and their families,’’ Pollack says, citing statistics from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. 

A straight-forward statistic from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that the median weekly earnings for full-time, wage and salaried workers is $719 for women and $871 for men. In Illinois, there’s a $10,000 gap between the average full-time, annual salaries of men and women. “Women make less than men even when they do the same types of jobs. Even when they have the same levels of education, they still make less than men,” says Kate Gallagher

Robbins, director of research and policy analysis for the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. “That’s not even getting into the factors that contribute to occupational segregation, which means that women are well overrepresented in the jobs at the lowest end of the labor market — those that are paid the least. Whereas men are overrepresented in jobs at the higher end of the labor market.”

The oft-cited statistic that a women working fulltime earns 78 cents for every dollar a man makes is in dispute by some, including the journalistic entity, The website notes that the number is the midpoint “for all women in all jobs not for women doing “the same work” or necessarily working the same hours.”

Women make less than men even when they do the same types of jobs. Even when they have the same levels of education, they still make less than men.

“I would actually argue, if you do that, you don’t capture the effects of economic segregation that places women at the bottom of the labor market,” Robbins says. “You don’t capture the impact of disproportional caregiving responsibilities on women, and so what you do you kind of peel away in my mind the causes of economic insecurity. If you only look at men and women who major in the same major at college, that’s an important measure. But then you don’t get to talk about well, why are there are few female engineering majors but there are so many females in early childhood education, which doesn’t pay nearly the same type of wages even though it’s a very important position.”

By looking at statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Labor, it is not too great a generalization to say that women — even in those female-dominated professions like nursing, bookkeeping, teaching and social work — earn less than their male counterparts.

Nor is it too great a generalization to say that many of the jobs most commonly held by women —among them are housekeepers, nannies and health care aides — are among the lowest paid and often lack job protections such as minimum-wage and 40-hour work week guarantees.

An estimated 80,000 women in Illinois are domestic workers, but the number is certainly higher because the jobs are not regulated, says James Povijua, the Illinois Campaign coordinator with the National Domestic Worker Alliance. Zylinska traveled to Springfield to advocate for what is called the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. The measure, which would have updated four Illinois laws — the Human Rights Act, the Minimum Wage Act, the One Day Rest in Seven Act and the Wages of Women and Children Act — won approval in the House this spring but never made it for a vote in the Senate. Chicagoan Maria Ayvar, 35, also traveled to Springfield to argue for more supports for poor women. Earlier this year, Ayvar and her sons, Cuper, 6, and Elias, 4, were staying in the San Jose Obrerro Mission in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. 

But then she was able to obtain a fulltime job making sandwiches for $8.50 an hour at a Romeoville company. The job enabled her to rent room in Little Village and allows her to send money to her 18-year-old daughter Guadalupe. Ayvar says through a translator that she left Mexico 12 years ago in hopes of being able to better support Guadalupe. She was only able to earn $3 to $4 a day before coming to Chicago. Ayvar is in the country illegally. Through a translator she says that she wishes she could afford a home for her children, but after paying $30 a day in child care and $8 toward carpooling, little money is left to save. 

Maria Ayvar is pictured with her sons, Cuper, 6, and Elias, 4. Earlier this year the family was living in a shelter.
Credit Maria Ayvar

Poverty is about more than dollars — it is about consequences, too, says Houston, the social work professor. “I worked for many years with families at risk for abuse and neglect,’’ the former social worker says. “Maybe a mother ... makes an unfortunate decision to leave her children at home unattended because she can’t afford child care, or maybe she puts off appointments too long because she can’t afford transportation to get to the doctor, or she’s working two or three jobs with no benefits. ... She might be more inclined to put off some of the medical care that children require.

“There are just a number of areas that are interconnected in terms of the outcomes of families with children, particularly when they are female headed households, that really create a high-risk environment in terms of health, abuse-related issues and then, also, of course, getting involved in the criminal justice system when you are living in a high crime area with very few resources,’’ Houston says.

She says that many people do rise above these complex and difficult circumstances. But for some, and for families headed by women in particular, they can add up to a cycle of poverty.

Shirley Jones, a 25-year-old hairdresser living in Springfield, knows the cycle well, having grown up in the foster care system in Chicago. She says she was taken from her mother’s custody at the age of 8 because her mother was “selling me to her friend, and he would do whatever he wanted to me, and she was actually paid for it. My mom was an alcoholic, and my dad was a crack head. I ended up going through the (Department of Child and Family Services) system. Being in there, I was raped and assaulted and molested and starved and beaten and all kinds of stuff. My mother never came to get us — so from the age of 8 to 21, when I ended up emancipating out of DCFS. I was left with nothing. They didn’t give me any money or anything. I was just out here on the streets juggling from house to house (with) no where to go.”

As of press time, she told Illinois Issues, she had only the youngest of her four daughters, 6-month-old Kamera Brown, in her care. “My oldest (Destiny, 9), I just let her go to be with her (paternal) grandmother because I did not want to have her out on the streets.”

Jones moved from Chicago’s south side Englewood neighborhood to Springfield two years ago. “I pretty much had grown up in Chicago all my life, and there was gang banging, and I don’t want my kids to grow up around that. That’s why I ended up moving. ... I saw it was nice and quiet down here for my kids growing up some place like that, and I moved them down here.”

A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services says the agency had cases filed involving Jones in 2010 and 2014 and that neglect and abuse were indicated. He declined further comment.

Jones says she is taking classes and hopes to regain custody of Makaila Jones, 5, and Angel Brown, 2. Jones says: “I’m struggling financially right now to get furniture, to get beds so my children can come home and have somewhere to sleep. My (baby) is is pretty much growing out of her bassinet, and she’s going to need a crib, a baby bed.

“Sometimes I can’t pay everything because my income is limited. Sometimes I don’t get customers every month. Sometimes people don’t come to me, and sometimes I don’t have money to pay bills.”

Changes in state and national policies affecting poor women and children could improve the situation, Robbins says. “There are policies we could look at that would increase economic security for women and their families that would reduce poverty, and often we are not taking those steps as we should be taking.”

Several pieces of legislation identified by Voices for Illinois Children, as being helpful to poor women with children failed to get out of legislative committees this session. That included an increase in the state earned income tax credit, which Larry Joseph, director of research for Voices, an advocacy and research agency, described as a having a benefit structure that encourages and rewards work.

Also, the General Assembly skipped action on bills to boost the minimum wage, require employees to get two weeks notice of a schedule change and create a family leave insurance benefit program.

Several of the sources for this story cited an increase in the minimum wage as being a major help to poor families. A study by the Economic PolicyInstitute in Washington, D.C., found that a proposal to hike the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $12 by 2020 would give a raise to 808,000 women in Illinois. Almost 40 percent of them are single mothers, says Julie Vogtman, director of income support policy at the National Women’s Law Center.

In Scandinavia, levels of poverty for women and children are low as compared to the United States, and the majority of those countries have strong social programs, says Chris Wienke, a sociology professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. “It comes down to policy choices,’’ he says. “Poverty is a structural problem even in times of a good economy. … In Sweden, Norway, northern Europe and other places, people have chosen to support all types of family forms.” The tradeoff is higher taxes in those countries for a more equal society with fewer poverty-related problems such as crime, family instability and homelessness, he says.

Barring major life or policy changes, the women in this story will probably remain poor. But they are, for the most part, optimistic. “I’ve got to think of it this way: I’m not dying of cancer. My kids are not dying of cancer. I almost lost one of my boys at birth. … You can always have it worse than what you have,” says Melquist, the mother of twins with medical issues. “I’m very religious, so I basically try to teach myself that God’s in control. Something good always happens and we’re always fine. We may not have a $1,000 or a million dollars, but we find happiness in the little things."