The Need is Real

In Essex County, as across the nation, women and girls make up 52% of our population but bear a significantly disproportionate burden of poverty, workplace inequities, homelessness, violence and abuse and other barriers to self-sufficiency and self-determination.

Helping to break this cycle is a combination of support and programs in adult education, job training and placement, financial literacy and asset building, health and wellness management, and violence intervention and support. These must be supported with ESOL/ESL, childcare, access to transportation, and peer support, among other services. 

Young women and girls need support in developing positive self-image, confidence and skills to fend off violence and bullying, and to make smart life choices, such as staying in school and avoiding pregnancy, which will impact the rest of their lives.  At-risk girls, in particular, need support and role modeling to envision new opportunities and build a path to success.

The Need

Women in Poverty

Essex County women living in poverty

  • 1 in 9 women and girls
  • 1 in 9 women aged 65 years or older.  Poverty levels increase significantly for women who are 75+, of color, divorced or unmarried.

Single-Mother Families

1 in 4 of Essex County families with children under 18 is headed by a single mother. Nearly 1 in 3 Latina families with children is headed by a single mother. While many of these single-mother families are self-sufficient and thriving, a significant percentage struggle to meet life’s basic necessities living at poverty and near-poverty levels.  The median family income of single mothers with children is $30,339.  (The Federal poverty level for a family of 3 is $20,090).  When one thing goes wrong for families living on the economic edge, homelessness may be a result.

Poverty and its issues are particularly acute for single-mother families.  Critical issues not only challenge the well-being of these women but impact the well-being and future of their children. A strategic focus on increasing the economic self-sufficiency of single mothers and their children can be a highly effective approach to begin to break their cycle of poverty.

  • 24% of single-mother families live in poverty.
  • 32% of single-mother families with children (< 18 years) live in poverty.
  • Nearly 50% of Essex County families living in poverty are single-mother families.
  • Of the 25,215 Essex County children who live in poverty, 67% live in single-mother families.
  • Of the 45,387 Essex County children living in families which received SSI, cash public assistance, and/or Food Stamps/SNAP benefits in the last 12 months, 51% live in single-mother families.
  • For mothers who cannot rely on extended family for childcare, the cost of childcare is the single most expensive budget item for single-mothers with pre-school or school-age children, exceeding the cost of housing. Single mothers who live in poverty spend approximately 4X the percentage of their income on childcare as other families. (EMPath)
  • 8% of single-mother families have children with some form of disability, 3X the rate of other households.
  • The vast majority of families in homeless shelters are single-mother families.
  Single-Mother Families % of Single Mother Families % Below Poverty Level
All Single-Mother Families 38,789 ---- 24%
Single-Mother Families with Children ( <18 years) 24,131 62% 32%
By Race/Ethnicity
White 25,473 66% 20%
Black or African American 2,011 5% 12%
Asian 1,249 3% 22%
Latina/Hispanic 13,933 37% 34%


Employment & Earnings Disparities

Women are now 50% of the workforce yet continue to earn significantly less than men.  Women of color earn even less. Pay disparity and employment barriers significantly impact a woman’s ability to support her family. 

  • In 50% of US households with children, women are either the primary or the sole breadwinner. Even when the woman is the secondary breadwinner, households are less secure because of her reduced wages.
  • The Majority of minimum wage workers are women. A significant percentage of whom are working mid-time (20-34 hrs/wk) or full-time (35+ hrs/wk). Annual earnings for a woman working full-time at Massachusett's current minimum wage of $10/hr is $20,800 which is below the poverty line.
  • Nearly 2/3rds of part-time workers are women. Increasing a woman’s education and training, employment opportunities, and access to affordable day care and/or transportation may enable more women to work full time to earn a living wage.
  • According to the Working Poor Families Project, the top five occupations held by low-income female heads of household are: health aides, cashiers, maids and house keepers, customer service reps., and personal care aides. 
  • 47% of women who work part time lack sick pay leave and lose critical wages or their job to care for self or family members. 
  • Women who earn reduced wages because of pay disparity or because of shorter life-time hours also earn less social security wages over time.  In Massachusetts, 30% of women ages 65+ rely on social security as their sole source of income – often not enough to make ends meet. The average annual social security income for a single-woman head of household is $8,813 approximately 200% below the poverty level.

Median Wages and the Wage Gap – A Complex Issue

Full-time workers; 16+ years of age (2014 dollars)

  • In Essex County, women’s overall median earnings ($50,179) average 81% of men’s ($62,236).  This represents an increase in women’s average wages over the last several years driven primarily by young single women with bachelor and graduate degrees entering the workforce at improved wages. 
  • However, the wage gap between working mothers and fathers remains larger.  In Massachusetts, mothers who work outside of the home (full time, year round) earn on average 68% of similarly aged men who are fathers (National Women’s Law Center).  This “mother’s penalty” is a combination of time away from the workplace (either time off from work or reduced work hours) and workplace discrimination which assumes a reduced commitment to career (“mommy track”).
  • Women of color continue to earn much less: Latina women earn 55% and African-American women earn 66% of white men’s median wages.
  • For young women who are coming into the workforce with college and graduate degrees, the wage gap is narrower than similarly aged men -- nationally 93% of men’s wages, according to Pew Research.  It is unclear whether this pay gap will remain as narrow or widen as the women progresses through their career.  Unfortunately, their predecessors – women with college and graduate degrees who have been in the workforce a number of years – still face an enormous pay disparity, earning on average 62% of the salary of equivalently educated men.  Some of this disparity is attributable to different job or career choices – just one of the reasons The Women’s Fund supports STEM programs for young women.
  • Women’s median earnings are lower than men’s across every employment sector (including public and not-for-profit) and every occupational sector.

The women’s wage gap is primarily a function of:

  • Occupational segregation: Women workers are typically concentrated in lower paying, female-dominated occupations.
  • Shorter work hours or time off: Many women take reduced work hours or experience interruptions in work for childcare and/or parent care.  Mean hours worked for women are 34 hours compared to men’s 41 hours.
  • Gender discrimination:  This is most often evidenced by lack of promotion or lower wages for comparable work.  Even in the top 10 occupations for women, including nursing, teaching and administration, men are typically paid more on average than women.  (Center for American Progress).

Educational Attainment

Educational attainment strongly impacts financial security. Across the board, higher educational attainment generally means lower levels of poverty. Overall,

  • 89% of Essex County men and women have a high school degree or higher.
  • 39% of men and 38% of women have a Bachelor degree or higher. 

There is improving news for young women. In Essex County, an increasing number of young women are attending college and graduate school. 

  • Currently, 55% of women ages 18-24 are enrolled in college or graduate school. (Women are 61% of total enrollment).  
  • However, 1 in 4 girls still do not finish high school.  This drop-out rate is even higher for young women of color (although an improving trend).  A young woman who does not complete high school has a significant probability of living her life in poverty.  A young woman with only a high school degree earns 62% of the average college degree salary for women – far below a living wage. 

Not surprisingly, single mothers have lower levels of educational attainment.

Education Level % of Single Mother Head-of-Household % Below Poverty Level
Less than High School Degree 17% 43%
High School Degree or Equivalency 25% 29%
Some College or Associate Degree 31% 20%
Bachelor's Degree or Higher 27% 11%
Overall Poverty Rate   24%

The good news is that over the last five years we have seen a slow but steady increase in the educational level of single mothers with a slight reduction in the overall poverty rate (26% in 2010; 30% in 2012; 24% in 2014).  Programs that support a single mother staying in school or returning to school are critical to reducing poverty for these mothers and their children.

Why We Stress Education

It is projected that by 2018, 68%+ of Massachusetts jobs will be classified as “knowledge” jobs requiring a post-secondary education (2 or 4 yr. college) in order to ensure a living wage.  This knowledge jobs gap is just one of the reasons so many families are struggling with unemployment and underemployment and living on the economic edge.  Education and job training are critical. 

Essex County’s state and community college system are central to providing a transformative education that leads to economic self-sufficiency and self-determination for a broader base of women.  Flexible programs are needed to assist low-income women and student mothers to attend and succeed in college.  In addition to tuition support, these programs must include a combination of counseling, daycare, emergency assistance of various kinds, and transportation access.  Equally important are programs that encourage our girls and young women to build career aspirations in knowledge and growth jobs and work with these young women in school and college readiness. 

Lack of Affordable Housing

Access to decent, affordable housing is an issue affecting many families, especially single-mother households.  After childcare, housing is the single most expensive budget item for single parents with pre-school and school-age children. (EMPath)

  • 59% of single-mothers rent, preventing their ability to build equity and keeping them asset poor. We are seeing a slight increase in the percentage of homeownership, in part a result of asset building and financial education programs for single mothers.
  • As a result of lack of affordable housing stock, frozen HUD Section 8 housing subsidies, and strained state support, there are a reported 45,000 homeless families in Massachusetts. The vast majority of these families are single mothers and their children.  These women live in persistent poverty and many lack the skills and education to get or improve jobs without training and other program support.  Many single-mother families living in shelters and temporary housing are escaping domestic violence. 

Violence & Abuse

Violence and abuse is more pervasive than many people realize and can completely uproot a family or alter an adolescent girl’s future.  Girls need safe places and solid role modeling where they can grow as individuals and learn to make smart decisions that will impact the rest of their lives.

  • 1 in 4 women and girls suffer violence or physical abuse in their lifetime.  For girls ages 14-24, the rate of violence has NOT decreased over the years.
  • Most violence or abuse reportedly starts during high school largely as domestic abuse or teen-dating violence.  School absenteeism and drop-out rates are often the reported result of feeling unsafe at school.
  • A physically or sexually abused teen is 6X more likely to become pregnant as a teenager.
  • Financial dependence is the primary reason women stay in abusive relationships.


These are just some of the issues The Women’s Fund seeks to address through our agency partners.  Women’s and girl’s issues are complex and overlapping requiring a multidimensional approach and targeted solutions.  Our goal at The Women’s Fund of Essex County is to identify those points of intervention in the lives of women and girls that can help change their future. 


Data Sources:  Analysis prepared by The Women’s Fund of Essex County based on the 2014 American Community Survey (ACS) Single-Year Estimates, released September 2015.  Additional sources: Center for Women in Politics and Policy, UMass Boston; Institute for Women’s Policy Research; Pew Research;  The YWCA of Greater Lawrence; EMPath (formerly Crittenton Women’s Union); Center for American Progress; National Women’s Law Center.