Skip to content

Learning to cast a wider survival net


Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
–Chinese Proverb

This saying is particularly appropriate as the nation continues to face high levels of unemployment, underemployment and significant numbers and percentages of people experiencing economic insecurity.

And that might get worse now that the Congressional Supercommittee could not agree on ways to balance the national budget, says a report released Tuesday by Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW).

According to the report–“Living Below the Line: Economic Insecurity and America’s Families”–45 percent of families in the United States cannot cover their basic living expenses.

Broken down ethnically, the figures are even more troubling. According to the report, 55 percent of all children and 77 percent of African American and Hispanic youth live in families without economic security. Additionally, 43 percent of all households, 62 percent of African American and 66 percent of Hispanic households have incomes that fail to reach economic security.

Closer to home, a June 2003 National Economic Development and Law Center report (now called the Insight Center for Community Economic Development) noted that 3 out of 10 households in California had incomes too low to pay for basic needs. In fact, on average a 2008 Insight report found that one adult with a preschooler and a school-age child needed to earn at least $44,768 in order to be financially secure.

“This is a wakeup call for Congress, for our state policymakers, really for all of us,” said Donna Addkison, president and CEO of Wider Opportunities for Women. “Nearly half of our nation’s families cannot cover the costs of basic expenses even when they do have a job. Under these conditions, cuts to unemployment insurance, financial aid for post-secondary education, job training, even childcare assistance and other programs families are relying on right now would push them from crisis to catastrophe.”

Addkison defined economic insecurity as the circumstance where a family lives at or above the federal poverty level yet does not make enough to take of the basic needs of his or her household, nor do they have enough income to plan for the future and retirement.

Addkison said the coalition of organizations WOW works with focuses on teaching people “how to fish,” but says that is not enough.

“When you look at the kinds of jobs that are being created in larger numbers, they are jobs that do not bring the promise of higher wages or family-sustaining benefits,” explained Addkison. “The question is how to change the mix of jobs that are coming into the American marketplace.”

According to the WOW president, in order to be economically secure the average U.S. worker with no child would have to earn at least $30,000; and that number would be higher in high-cost-of-living areas like Los Angeles County. The figure for two workers with two children is roughly $67,000.

Ensuring that women and underrepresented groups are working in high-wage industries is one way to help change the landscape of economic insecurity. Addkison said, there are approximately 500 industry categories that the Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies, and women and underrepresented workers make up more than 25 percent of the work force in only 50 of them.
Alexandra Torres, executive director of Women in Non-Traditional Employment (WINTER), is one of the local groups working to change that.

The Long-Beach based, 16-year-old nonprofit provides low-income women with training in non-traditional careers, particularly the construction and building trades and environmental remediation. Then the organization helps them get placed in a job and follows up with retention services such as mentoring, childcare and other things that will help the individual stay on the job.

Additionally, the organization works with Rosie the Riveter Charter High School in Long Beach, which attempt to make sure that youth have the skills they need to get into pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship positions in the building trades.

The services are provided free of charge, and because WINTER is the only program to focus on putting women to work in high-paying industry, the group works with clients from all over the region.

The Los Angeles Opportunities Industrialization Center (LAOIC) is another organization that is teaching people how to fish.

The mission of OIC is to be a leader in providing quality education, training, employment, healthcare and housing services to economically disadvantaged people of all races and backgrounds, enabling them to become self-sufficient members of the community.

Other organizations working to ensure people develop self-sufficiency include Goodwill Industries, Women at Work and You-Turn Project.

Despite the challenges and obstacles, Addkison is confident that organizations like hers are making an impact and producing a whole lot of new fishermen and fisherwomen.