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Czyczynska: The heart of San Diego can be found in the women

Empathy is what I expected to feel. But I surpassed that to where I was deeply moved, by statistics.

I’ve been reading the newly released survey commissioned by Women Give San Diego, a donor circle of the Women’s Foundation of California. Titled “The Economic Self-Sufficiency and Security of Women in San Diego County: Exploring Opportunities for Impact”, it is the first-ever, wide ranging study of the financial health of San Diego females.

Women across America make 77 cents for every $1 a man earns for equal work, including San Diego. African American women make 75 cents and Latinas earn a measly 60 cents for every $1 that men earn.

Until now, no one had surveyed how local women are affected by making less. Now we have specific sources to show that the recent economic recession has had a disproportionate financial impact on San Diego women and girls.

In an instructive meeting I attended of the newly formed WGSD, the members revealed these findings and discussed the ramifications. They explained how the economy paired with unequal pay and gender inequalities affecting access to higher paying jobs have created an almost “perfect storm” of need.

Among San Diegans with jobs, more women than men are employed part-time and at a higher rate than women in the U.S. in general. These partially employed women make less, have fewer benefits, and less job security than their peers who work full time. Among the 1.6 million women and girls who call San Diego home, over one million are of “working age (16 and over),” close to 80,000 are single mothers with dependant children, and at least 60,000 are unemployed.

As the daughter of a welfare mom, I couldn’t help but see my childhood in these figures. My mother brought our family to Seattle from Munich in the midst of a divorce. She hadn’t completed high school, had little job experience, spoke less than perfect English and received little alimony. Luckily the government programs and community support she found sheltered, fed,and provided health care for us.

The comprehensive programs afforded my mother the opportunity to work part time while attending college full time. She attained the degrees needed for solid work with a decent income. Within 10 years of moving to America she was buying a business and owned her own home. The help she received surpassed her dreams.

Meet San Diego woman Falis Budul

Many immigrants idolize San Diego. However, the big city opportunities and sunny skies don’t necessarily reflect the realities of making it here as a female. In compiling their survey, WGSD discovered there are more than 350,000 foreign born women locally and an additional 90,000 immigrant women who are undocumented.

In the U.S., the median income for women who are fully employed is just over $38,000. The income needed to make ends meet for a single parent with one child in San Diego is just about $40,000. While that’s close enough for some, sadly more San Diego women than men are in the lowest-paying jobs.

Since 1990, the local economy has created eight times more low-paying jobs than high-paying jobs. A low-paying job is defined as having a median annual income of about $24,000. A high-paying job is closer to $80,000. Given that the typical two-bedroom apartment in San Diego rents for about $1200 a month, a family or single woman would need three full-time, minimum wage jobs in order to afford that apartment, and still eat.

In conjunction with reading the survey, I interviewed an immigrant from Somalia who was part of a focus group by WGSD. Falis Budul, 41, moved to San Diego in 1989 because her husband was granted a visa for education. In 1990, war broke out in her home country of Somalia so the couple decided to stay. Budul had a high school education, was primarily a mother and spoke only her native language.

Once residency was established, Budul joined community groups who taught her English and to sew on electric machines. She had only known hand-stitching. She enrolled in college and became a Certified Nursing Assistant. Along the way she realized her skill at teaching and community organizing. Soon she was training other Somali women how to start businesses.

With her and her husband working full time, they were secure. A few of their children were in college and a baby was on the way. But tragedy struck when Budul’s husband died of a stroke last year. The unforeseen loss dissolved the financial cushion Budul had and cut her income dramatically. She is now the sole provider with seven children ages one to 23. Three of her daughters will soon be college graduates; she relies on them for help.

Although Budul is strained, she is optimistic. With an upbeat tone she said to me that because she’s fluent in English and business know-how, she feels she can manage. When necessary, she works extra by sewing. She works full time as a parental instructor for First 5 San Diego, and when the grant ends and the job ends she’ll study to become a Registered Nurse.

When I asked her if she could have achieved her goals if only given financial help when she arrived, she declared, “No. Everyone needs a guide.” She said the programs she enrolled in taught her to be a leader, a role model and to have unshakable confidence. She stressed that to convince women they can do anything, you must teach them the skills to prove it.

For the time being Falis Budul is nearly self-sufficient and she’s certain that nursing will lead to financial security.

Donor circles do research

WGSD defines “economic self-sufficiency” as the ability to make ends meet in a fair weather economy. Self-sufficiency includes a home, affording health care, stocking the pantry, providing transportation and clothing the kids. WGSD defines “security” as being able to weather unforeseen emergencies, like the cost of a flat tire, a broken limb or a lost job.

Though WGSD already knew need exists in local communities, they sought quantifiable evidence to prove it. Their study defines the hardest hit populations and their unique needs. With this information, they can tailor their efforts to provide smart, long-term solutions instead of blindly giving one-time monetary gifts.

Donor circles in other communities have proven to be effective. Jan Tuttleman, founding president of WGSD, wrote me to explain, “After witnessing the impact of organizations such as the New York and Dallas Women’s Foundation…, I started Women Give San Diego so that women in need in San Diego have a voice, an advocate and resource and skills to contribute to their families and community.”

In the meeting I attended, Co-Founder Linda Katz explained further, “We realize philanthropy is never going to meet all the economic needs.” She underlined the necessity for education in guiding women to financial health. WGSD believes that programs that teach women how to save and invest are the only programs that assure financial independence. Katz also stressed political involvement so that legislation is passed in support of equal pay and access to jobs.

Donor circles were created on the premise that money can be given wisely, and that teaching how to use money is part of the wisdom of giving it. According to the Women’s Foundation of California, donor circles are groups of individuals, corporate representatives and philanthropic partners who pool their donations in order to greater impact the issues they most care about. Most donor circles expect hands-on involvement in the communities they donate to. Mentorship is as crucial to the cycle of giving as is learning the needs and realities of the women and girls the donor circle assists.

When I asked Budul what she thought would help disadvantaged women succeed, she suggested that philanthropic groups talk with service organizations to discover needs directly. She suggested donor circles find communities of women who are willing to work and to invest in groups of women that work together because the success rate will be higher. By far, the most important aspect, she said, is finding “women who are willing to mentor.”

Certainly, the success of donor circles looks promising. At the close of the WGSD meeting I attended, a member asked to speak for herself. Olivia Puentes-Reynolds thanked the group for compiling the survey and simply stated, “It takes heart,” to dedicate time, money and effort to quantify the needs of women.

It was a simple thank you that made me wonder if it’s the heart at the center of the circle that will sustain its success. This circle of women doesn’t merely give of their money; they give of their hearts. And, they’re mindful in how they do it.

Tryce Czyczynska is the co-founder of 51%: A Women’s Place Is In Politics and host of “Coffee & Conversation with Cool Women.” She is an SDNN contributor. Follow her on Twitter.