Can we tackle generational poverty by investing in college degree persistence and achievement for young moms?

New Moms collaborated with Metopio to explore this question for National Teen Pregnancy Awareness Month.

New Moms is a Chicago-based nonprofit that partners with young moms, 24 years old and under, as they take powerful first steps toward economic mobility and family well-being. Their main office is in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Bordering the wealthy suburb of Oak Park, the Austin community has endured decades of neglect from city officials including a lack of investment in community resources and redlining practices that denied black families access to mortgages to buy homes – one of the most important ways of building generational wealth – leaving them at the mercy of landlords, who often take advantage of tenants.

The teen birth rate in Austin is more than double the rate of the City of Chicago as a whole. In Austin, it is 37.01 per 1000 women and in Chicago, it is only 17 per 1000 women. Single-mother households also make up 10.57% of all households in the Austin community, compared to 6.08% in all of Chicago.

Education and Poverty

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only half of teen moms are likely to receive a high school diploma by age 22, and they are more likely to be dependent on public assistance. Completing higher education can have a significant impact on the long-term earning potential of a young family — helping young moms to create a pathway out of poverty.

Earning a college degree is an important way young moms can pursue economic mobility. Research shows single mothers in Illinois holding an Associate’s or Bachelor’s degree are 45% and 67% less likely, respectively, to live in poverty than high school graduates. However, the current higher degree graduation rate for females in Austin is only 26.55% — almost half the rate of the entire city (48.22%).

In the Austin community, there is also a lack of family-sustaining, living-wage jobs compared to the rest of the city. The poverty rate for workers who are currently employed and living in poverty is 12.61% in Austin, which is far higher than the city of Chicago as a whole (6.95%). Having a college degree can expand access to quality jobs for young families, which is integral to long-term financial stability and a catalyst for economic mobility out of poverty.

Using Data to Drive Programs

You can explore all of these critical pieces of data across the Austin community, Chicago, Illinois and the United States here.

Having this data in hand, New Moms has two innovative and successful programs aimed at helping young moms pursue and retain stable, living-wage employment and address these education gaps:

• Job Training: A 16-week Job Training program that blends paid classroom and on-the-job experience at New Moms’ social enterprise home fragrance company, Bright Endeavors.

• Academic Coaching: A new three-year program pilot (with the City Colleges of Chicago as our primary educational partner) that supports young moms pursuing college degrees. Click here to learn more about the program.

Impact of Education

Currently, only 8% of single mother students in Illinois complete an Associate degree within six years, compared to 60% of students without children, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. This is often because schools cannot fully provide the kind of support young parents need to ensure success. Also, many resources at colleges and universities are first and foremost geared toward the needs of non-parent students.

Additionally, one in three black women in college, who are already underrepresented in higher education because of underfunded primary and secondary schools, historical racism in the application process, high tuition costs, and a lack of community support, are single parents. New Moms’ Academic Coaching program was created to address this disparity and to help young moms like Mikah Jorgensen, a 21-year-old New Moms participant.

From Mikah’s Perspective

“Times are not getting easier,” said Mikah, a member of the inaugural Academic Coaching program cohort.

Mikah started attending college towards the end of her pregnancy. She gave birth to her daughter and was back to school two days later. She said the experience was very difficult. “I was feeling defeated. Halfway through getting my degree I was like, ‘Man, this is hard.’ Honestly, the program is a lifesaver because it definitely raised my morale. I just wish there were more programs like New Moms.”

She shared “With the cost of living going up and the minimum wage staying the same, it has made it basically impossible for someone to sustain not only their own life but also a life with their family. I feel like it’s important to be able to have the security and stability of a job that’s held under a degree, and to also have that work-life balance to where I can spend time with my kid instead of working 24/7.”

Mikah said the Academic Coaching program is about more than just helping people to get their degrees. “I think it also helps with life lessons and setting you up for success for the future,” said Mikah, who is currently pursuing her Associate’s degree in psychology at Triton College.

“Young mothers, especially teenage mothers, are just expected to pick up with life and know exactly everything that they’re supposed to do. I think that this program helps with not only giving a little bit of financial relief, but also helps people to be able to make more educated decisions for not only themselves but for their kids.”

Stay Tuned

Results from New Moms Academic Coaching pilot will have significant implications for the fields of postsecondary persistence and workforce development. Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago will evaluate the project, and their findings will be made publicly available so other social service and higher education providers can learn from our experiences.

Data accessed through Metopio has helped to confirm the need for this program in the Austin community. It also ensures that New Moms’ programs and investments are serving the people in the community with the greatest need.