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Low-Income Working Mothers Face ‘Basic Needs Barrier’

mother working while tending to son

Motherhood can present barriers in the careers of working women.

However, lower-income working mothers face disproportionate challenges that can derail career progression, according to a survey of 1,000 lower-income and 500 middle- and higher-income working mothers by the University of Phoenix Career Institute and parenting information platform Motherly.

The report, published in December, revealed that 74 percent lower-income working mothers cite personal finances as their “top stressor,” compared with 57 percent of working mothers with higher incomes.

Many working mothers who reported being stressed about finances alluded to insufficient emergency funds and trouble paying bills such as health insurance and car payments as top concerns.

“We observed that [lower-income] mothers face what we call a basic needs barrier,” said Ruth Veloria, chief strategy officer at the University of Phoenix. “They are concerned with the fundamentals, … and they are taking on work that fulfills those needs, even if it is not fulfilling them personally, or providing the stability they’d desire to progress and achieve self-sufficiency.”

Among lower-income working mothers:

  • 64 percent said pursuing a career feels out of reach.
  • 51 percent said the income they earn from their current job is insufficient to meet their basic needs, such as paying for groceries, housing and transportation.
  • 16 percent have more than one job to fill in gaps in their income. Of those who have more than one job, 36 percent said they need the flexibility of multiple jobs to meet their personal or child care needs.

“One major challenge the report illustrates for this group is an acute degree of difficulty in breaking out of a cycle where they must juggle multiple low-paying jobs with little career attachment, simply to make ends meet,” Veloria said.

Child Care: A Major Obstacle for Low-Income Mothers

While 58 percent of working mothers across all income levels report trouble finding child care:

  • Lower-income moms cited the need for support on child care expenses, in addition to other bills, at substantially higher rates.
  • About 25 percent of all lower-income moms said they need to take unpaid time off just to find child care support, compared with 15 percent of middle- or higher-income mothers.

Kaitlin Howes, an HR business partner at employee engagement platform Reward Gateway in Cambridge, Mass., called choosing between caring for sick children and fulfilling work commitments to provide for your family “exceptionally challenging.”

“The struggle is complicated when they can’t afford to miss work,” she said. “We need understanding and support from businesses to create environments where these moms can thrive professionally and personally.”

Inadequate child care is costing working parents $37 billion a year in lost income and employers $13 billion a year in lost productivity. Employee absences and job turnover decline when businesses provide child care, but onsite child care was the least frequently offered family-friendly perk in a recent assessment of 1,700 companies.

The University of Phoenix survey found that more than half of lower-income working mothers said they would work at a lower salary if their employer offered resources, such as onsite child care or paid parental leave, to assist them.

“Our research finds that 46 percent of working lower-income moms and 38 percent of working middle- or high-income moms spend more than 30 percent of their paycheck on various child care needs,” Veloria said. “Essentially, that is a second mortgage that these families are investing in.”

Working to Thrive, Trying to Survive

A similar percentage of lower-income (50 percent) and higher-income (56 percent) survey participants felt that being a working mother has held them back at work despite exhibiting a deep desire for furthering their careers, the University of Phoenix study found.

But lower-income working mothers face additional obstacles:

  • 53 percent of lower-income mothers say they don’t have a lot of role models with careers, compared with 38 percent of middle- and higher-income mothers.
  • 33 percent of employed lower-income mothers have switched jobs in the past year, versus just 18 percent of middle- and higher-income moms.

Lower-income mothers are more likely to take jobs out of necessity while middle- and higher-income mothers seek jobs that match their experience and education. As the report stated, “If many middle- and higher-income mothers are working to thrive, their lower-income peers are trying to survive.”

To better support lower-income working mothers, researchers found that HR can:

  • Champion affordable, accessible child care.
  • Offer generous PTO benefits.
  • Leverage skills acquired through motherhood—such as the ability to multitask, problem-solve and manage time—to help them thrive at work.
  • Increase opportunities to build skills through training programs and mentorships.

HR should also consider beefing up their child care benefits, such as more onsite or backup child care options and dependent care flexible spending accounts, which are tax-advantaged accounts workers use to save money for child care.

“HR leaders can play a crucial role in advancing this action and transforming working mothers’ day-to-day experiences,” Veloria explained, “which has the potential to positively impact a working mom’s life for years to come.”


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