The State of Women
On a positive note, the state ranks fifth in the nation for women’s business ownership. Between 2002 and 2012, Florida had the fourth highest growth rate in women-owned businesses in the country, when businesses owned by women grew by nearly 85 percent to 38.5 percent.
These results came in “The Status of Women in Florida by County: Poverty & Opportunity,” a thorough study commissioned by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in partnership with the Florida Women’s Fund- ing Alliance.
Florida received a D+ on IWPR’s Poverty and Opportunity Index, the same score the state received in a similar study 10 years ago.
Among the highlights:
• Florida ranks 50th in the nation on the percent of non-elderly women with health insurance.
• Fewer Florida women aged 25 and older (26.7 percent) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 28.1 percent of Florida men.
The report estimates that if working women in Florida were paid the same as comparable men — of the same age, with the same level of education, working the same number of hours and with the same urban/rural status — the poverty rate among all working women would fall by 57.3 percent.
Other policy suggestions include expanding health programs for low-income women, improving educational opportunities for women of color, investing in women’s entrepreneurship, providing paid sick days and paid family leave, increasing the minimum wage, strengthening safety net programs and taking steps to narrow the gender wage gap.
The detailed 53-page report provides county-level analysis, which helps local governments, businesses, social service agencies, educational institutions and other entities evaluate the ways they support women in poverty, help women out of poverty and how they can improve the status of women in their communities.
For example, Collier County women receive an average of $461 less per month in Social Security benefits than men.
“To me, that was the most shocking thing in the report (for Collier County),” said Eileen Connolly Keesler, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Collier County and member of the Florida Women’s Funding Alliance Steering Committee. “Collier County has almost 13,000 senior women living alone, and when you look at a difference of $461, that pays for a ton of stuff for them.”
Ms. Connolly-Keesler also noted that “the glass ceiling is alive and well” and suggested that “if we could start doing more scholarships for girls and women to go to school, that would definitely help. Education is the only way out of poverty.”
She also said that the report helped give the Community Foundation a better understanding of some of the issues facing women in Collier. “I think we can target a little bit better our charitable giving,” she stated.
The Women’s Foundation of Collier County at the Community Foundation focuses on the current and changing needs of women and girls in Collier County.
Naples Chamber of Commerce, said the study resonated with her because the chamber recently began discussing the idea of establishing a group focused on women in business, in part to help them connect with the Naples Accelerator and Tamiami Angel Fund.
“Women business owners can get loans through the SBDC but the county doesn’t have any incentives that specifically address women in business,” Ms. Bartlett said. “I think this report is probably going to bring to light some issues that people aren’t aware of or haven’t seen.”
She said some Collier County businesses are adding benefits such as unlimited paid time off and paid maternity, which she said is a nationwide trend. “I think you will see that more widespread,” she stated.
Lucienne Pears, director of the Charlotte County Economic Development Office, agrees that businesses can be a driving force for helping women out of poverty. She sees public-private partnerships that combine education with jobs as a good model and points to the new Western Michigan University presence in Punta Gorda as a success story.
“The university looked at our aging population in Charlotte and saw demand for education programs to provide a pipeline of workforce for medical providers,” said Ms. Pears. “We really arrived at this place by having a university partner that is very interested in meeting the needs of the community and having a medical community that is very open to partnerships.”
The Economic Development Office is also working with Florida SouthWestern State College to put together education pathways for lifelong learning. “The ability for people to take a hiatus from earning and living is becoming more difficult. Providing alternatives to get higher education while working is important. We feel we’re ahead of the curve in Charlotte County.”
Ms. Pears also says governments can be proactive when recruiting businesses to locate in their community. For example, when Cheney Brothers expressed interest in building a 260,000-squarefoot distribution center, they were offered tax incentives but asked to provide a certain number of jobs at a certain wage, and 100 percent with benefits. The company now employs 380 people.
She notes, however, that employees need a place to live, and says Charlotte has a shortage of affordable housing. The Economic Development Office commissioned a study showing pent-up demand and enticed a developer to purchase land for 500 multifamily units.
“In speaking with that developer, our study played a big role in the viability of that property,” she said.
Angela Hogan, executive director of the Charlotte County Homeless Coalition, is glad to hear of this progress, as her organization helps people prevent homelessness and assists those who are homeless.
“As a community, we need to work a lot harder at seeing ourselves as something other than a retirement community and building an infrastructure that supports diverse economic opportunities beyond medical care and service jobs,” said Ms. Hogan. “We need to train a local workforce so families want to stay here and can stay here and our kids can stay and raise their families. It would be incredible if we had more universities, teaching hospitals, manufacturing or R&D of some kind. I think we have capacity in this community to do a lot more than we do.”
The coalition offers a 16-week Getting Ahead in a Just Getting By World program that teaches people ways to get out of poverty, how to develop new skills and new ways of thinking, budgeting and parenting.
“There are opportunities available in the community for education, transportation, and childcare. We tell people they can get over the obstacles, get a new skill and a new job.”
Still, Ms. Hogan noted that people living in poverty are “working as hard as they can but they cannot make ends meet.” She said about 40 percent of the homeless in Charlotte are women and about 50 percent of those households include children.
The coalition provides housing, meals and financial assistance, and refers clients to the Virginia B. Andes Volunteer Community Clinic for free health care.
“With Florida not expanding Medicaid, there are few options for our folks if their employer doesn’t offer insurance,” Ms. Hogan said.
Many of the policy recommendations in the study would require state legislation changes, like expanding Medicaid, but U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, Democratic congresswoman from Palm Beach, isn’t optimistic about these changes.
“We have a state legislature that has refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act,” said Ms. Frankel. “They should but they won’t.” She also doesn’t expect the Republican-controlled legislature to enact paid leave legislation or raise the minimum wage.
“When you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to help the families headed by women,” Ms. Frankel said. “But in Florida, this is not likely to happen.”
She has the same sentiment about education programs that would support women. “This is a state that, when the country came out of the recession, was 50th in putting money back into education,” she stated.
Instead of relying on the government, Ms. Frankel suggested that “there’s a lot private business can do. They can understand that paying workers decent wages and having good family leave programs makes them better employers.”
Karen Marcus, former longtime Palm Beach County Commissioner, said the solution is to “start at the beginning and not wait until poverty gets to be the problem. Make sure people go to school and there’s a job for them. No matter how many resources you have, the problem continues if you haven’t solved the core issue of education.” She would like to see more emphasis on trade schools.
Ms. Marcus said the middle class is struggling and she would like to see more programs for them, including affordable housing and health care.
“Workforce or affordable housing is very difficult to do anywhere, especially when land costs in Palm Beach County are high,” said Ms. Marcus. “And health care is elusive to a lot of people because it’s expensive. There are government programs that help the really poor. The missing widget is that group in the middle that can’t afford health insurance, especially with the cost of day care.”
In Fort Myers, the Heights Foundation, serving families in the Harlem Heights, realized workforce education was one way to help people out of poverty. Two years ago, they started a culinary arts job training program that has graduated 89 people, with 86 of them currently employed.
The program focuses on the technical skills required to get a job in food service but includes ancillary services such as English as a Second Language classes and reading skills proficiency that are also helpful when seeking employment.
“We really try to set people up for success,” said Deb Mathinos, director of lifelong learning.
The program is offered free thanks to funding from the Southwest Florida Community Foundation and other grantors.
Many of the participants are female heads of household with children, and 70 percent are nonnative English speakers. “The language barrier is a challenge in finding work that will allow them to make a minimum wage,” Ms. Mathinos said. “They also have very limited formal education. Many stopped going to school in middle school.”
Ms. Mathinos said being located in the neighborhood and offering a variety of programming that attracts children and their parents is an advantage.
“There’s a really good level of trust that we’ve been able to establish. I think it has made a huge difference.”
She also pointed out that people living in poverty want to make a better life for themselves and their children. “They are incredibly hard-working people,” Ms. Mathinos said. “They just don’t know how to begin or how to access the resources available to them.”
John Boland, director of the Lee County Economic Development Office, echoed the sentiment that people should take the initiative to find out what resources are available to them.
“There is a little bit of a level of personal responsibility,” he said.
He noted that Lee County has “outstanding adult education programs with low cost” as well as several universities and technical schools. “There isn’t a lack of educational facilities here,” said Mr. Boland. “I don’t know what’s preventing people from continuing their education.”
Mr. Boland said businesses continually tell him that they cannot find employees with soft skills, such as customer service, communication and work ethic. “It’s the lack of great talent that is holding them back from growing,” he stated.
His office is also putting more emphasis on supporting women- and minority-owned businesses, acknowledging that “probably 40 to 50 percent of businesses in Lee are owned by women.”
The study’s exhaustive research, and the responses it prompts should have positive impacts, concludes Ms. Connolly-Keesler with the Community Foundation of Collier County. “A study in 10 years will definitely show some improvement,” she predicts. ¦