Low income mothers need policy agenda to overcome healthcare obstacles
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Yesterday at 8:00 a.m. I was at the Mississippi Health Department in Jackson City. The waiting room is half-full, mostly with African American women and their children waiting to get immunizations, talk to a nutritionist, speak with a health care officer, obtain shot records or any number of other requests. I am here as a patient to get immunizations for an upcoming trip abroad.

A young mom carrying her infant in one arm with a baby bag swung over the opposite shoulder enters the waiting room while her own mother follows close behind. I overhear the mom explaining to the intake officer that it was imperative that she see a nutritionist today concerning switching her baby’s formula. Apparently her baby was having difficulty digesting the milk and was refusing to drink it.

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She explains she had recently picked up the formula from the local health department as part of the federally funded Women Infant and Children program, or WIC. That is the supplemental nutrition program providing supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education programs for low income women and their children ages 0-5 years old. She wanted to exchange it for another formula that would be more soothing to her baby’s digestive system. She was told to come back or wait most of the day.

Like the mother in this case, many low income mothers all across the country cannot take off time from work to wade through red tape and solve an urgent health problem for a child. They simply do not have other options.

A recent report published by CLASP on the generational impact of poverty demonstrates how parents’ low-wage, low-quality jobs have damaging consequences for families. Further increasing the risks to children and to parents’ economic stability, many of these low-income working families lack access to affordable child care, health care.

Nearly 80 percent of workers earning less than $15,000 per year and about half of workers earning between $15,000 and $34,999 per year lack access to even a single paid sick day. While 40 percent of all workers lack access to paid sick days, the same is true of 60 percent of Latino workers.

The report further states that without paid sick days, taking time to recover from the flu or care for a sick child can mean not only being docked pay but also losing a much-needed job. One in seven low wage workers and one in five low-wage working mothers had lost a job in the past year due to illness or caring for a sick family member.

Recently, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAll five living former presidents to attend hurricane relief concert Overnight Health Care: Schumer calls for tying ObamaCare fix to children's health insurance | Puerto Rico's water woes worsen | Dems plead for nursing home residents' right to sue Interior moves to delay Obama’s methane leak rule MORE signed an executive order that federal contractors allow all their employees to have paid sick leave.

According to the Economic Policy Institute: “In line with the Department of Labor, our estimates suggest that between 694,000 and 1,053,000 employees of federal contractors may directly benefit from additional paid sick leave, including an estimated 450,000 to 775,000 who currently receive no paid sick leave.”

Only 5 percent of civilian U.S. workers who are among the lowest 25 percent of wage earners have access to paid family leave. More than half of all U.S. workers lack even job-protected unpaid leave.

Erratic scheduling has grave effects on working families. Workers with unpredictable and unstable work schedules experience greater work-family conflict, stress, marital strife, and less time spent with children; and their children may perform poorly in school.

Many struggle to arrange child care and transportation and may have difficulty scheduling medical appointments for themselves and their families, contributing to weaker health outcomes. Many workers experience volatile schedules that change from week to week, often with little advance notice.

Many single moms earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford insurance. This is the population harmed by Mississippi’s and 18 other states’ failure to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving mothers vulnerable to expensive and disruptive health problems. Among non-expansion states Mississippi has the highest percent of uninsured women trapped in the coverage gap.

Women are highly concentrated in low-wage work. The U.S. Department of Labor has recently found that workers in low-wage jobs have significantly less access to leave benefits than people in higher paying work. do not provide parental leave. Mothers have no maternity leave after the birth of their children. Low wage jobs do not allow employees flexibility to manage child care issues that may arise.  Often child care providers know that calling a parent at work when a problem arises can jeopardize her employment.

Across the nation, women are roughly half the workforce, but are two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in this country. A woman working full time, year round at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns just $14,500 per year.

According to 2016 federal poverty guidelines, that is more than $4,500 below the poverty line for a mother with two children in 2014. Women constitute two-thirds of the workers in tipped occupations, (such as waitressing and salon work) making $2.15 an hour.

We have need in this country for an economic agenda for women and families nationally and at state level. This agenda must increase the minimum wage including tip workers, access to affordable child care, ensuring access to health care and reproductive health, providing paid sick leave, and paid family and medical leave, ensuring fair work schedules, stronger protections against domestic violence and sexual assault, and improving education and training opportunities.

This bold agenda is doable and possible. It can begin locally, but a federal mandate is necessary. Our families deserve better.

Cassandra Overton-Welchlin is co-founder and director of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, a project of Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative. She is a Fellow with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow in partnership with The OpEd Project.


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