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Balancing Act: Mothers on the margin

On Mother's Day, Sandra Salinas will walk eight blocks with her son Felipe to put in a six-hour shift at the neighborhood laundromat. A year ago, she dreamed of being able to give up her second job.

But as the economy tightened and rents continued to climb, Salinas saw her hope of anything less than a seven-day work week disappear.

"I need the money,'' she says.

As American families feel the pinch of the economy, single mothers are particularly vulnerable. This is even more true in South Florida, where some of our large immigrant and fluid population functions without the safety net of extended family. Experts say it is becoming increasingly common to find single mothers working several jobs, piecing together child care, and searching for scarce government resources to help them stay afloat.

"It takes a very positive outlook,'' says Maria Piúon, whose oversees All Aboard Education Services, a parent resource center in Little Havana.

Advocates say they are seeing more cries from help from mothers in trouble, hit by unrelenting rental prices, unexpected cuts in job hours and rising food costs.

Dann Borvil, single mother to 3-year-old Henry, has had to take on a second job. Although she works as a child care assistant at the YMCA, her son isn't old enough to come with her. Reliant on buses, she can't work more hours and swing the day care pick up. So, she and her son now spend their weekends in private homes, Henry playing at her feet while she braids hair for the money to cover his Pull Ups and wipes.

"It is getting harder for women like me. I don't do drugs. I don't drink. I'm just trying to make an honest living and a good life for my son,'' she says.

Economics illustrates clearly why single mothers are struggling to keep pace. A new study commissioned by the Human Services Coalition shows the average cost of living and working in South Florida continues to greatly outpace average earnings. Even with the housing crisis, rents often exceed $750 a month for an efficiency. At the same time, industries such as retail, hotels and restaurants, where many females are employed, are cutting workers' hours.

"These women are doing everything they can to make ends meet in a worsening economy,'' says Daniella Levine, CEO of the Human Services Coalition. And still, "more and more are saying they can't pay their bills.''

In many local neighborhoods, the mother network has kicked in. Women are spreading the word about opportunities for housecleaning or paper routes. Angela Calhoun, a widow and mother of four, says she learned of her part-time job at a nonprofit agency from a mother in the community. "I was looking on my own and it was difficult.''

To cope, families also are moving in together, and mothers are putting their names on wait lists for low-cost child care as well as turning to government resources and food banks.

Gladys Lopez has taken another approach. Lopez came from Honduras six years ago for a better life in Miami. She sells Herbalife nutritional supplements to support herself and her 5-year-old daughter. Her job earns her about $1,000 a month and covers her $750 rent.

Lopez says she carefully budgets what she earns. She has no child care expenses (her daughter is in a free preschool program). The two walk anywhere they need to go, don't own a television, visit the library and parks, and eat all meals at home. She goes without health insurance for herself. Lopez says she's worked hard to create a financial structure that covers her bills and eliminates the need to pay for child care.

"I want to do many things but I don't,'' she says.

Sometimes the solution involves even bigger sacrifices.

Anna Juarez says she tried for six years to juggle work and young kids. To cover her bills, she held three jobs -- cleaning homes, offices and babysitting. "I always worried about who would take care of my kids while I worked,'' she says. "Their father was out of the picture.'' About six months ago, Juarez sent her children to live with their grandmother in Peru. Each month, she sends money. "They are much better off,'' she says. "I miss them but it was just too hard.''