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State does little to help single moms earn living
JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff Mary Kay Porter takes a rare breather from her job managing Express Check Cashing in Billings. Porter likes her job, but would rather be a school teacher. She is among a large group of Montana residents classified as under-employed.

Mary Kay Porter earned two teaching degrees, but her real education has come from Montana's gritty job market.

Along her paycheck journey, the Billings woman has developed strong feelings about how to help single parents and chronically under-employed workers.

Porter planned on becoming a teacher, but her life hasn't gone according to plan.

After a surprise divorce in 1987, she became the single parent of their four children, the youngest daughter in junior high.

"I thought, how am I going to do it with four kids? But I guess you find out how strong you are," said Porter, who is now 54.

Child support was a battle with her ex-husband and money was tight.

Still, she cobbled together some loans and job training funds and went to college. Her last year in 1993 at Eastern Montana College was a doozie.

"My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I was taking care of her, plus the kids and finishing school," she recalled. "And then my brother-in-law died of a heart attack during my student teaching."

Still, Porter persevered, graduating with a double major in education and special education.

"I thought my opportunities would be pretty good," she said.

Instead, Porter's class hit a sour job market. Porter and her friends could not get hired full-time in the Billings school system.

One male friend sent nearly 200 unsuccessful applications from Montana to the West Coast.

"There were a lot of people who went to school who were really good and really conscientious and really wanted to teach," she said. "None of them are teachers today."

Moving to another city to find a teaching job wasn't a good option for Porter. She was worried about selling the house, her mother still needed care and her kids needed stability.

She worked as a substitute teacher and, with her youngest in junior high school, she took a second job.

After three years of working two jobs and taking care of her kids and mother, Porter burned out.

"I had to be superwoman," Porter said. "I had to stop and say, 'What's good for me?' "

Deciding she had to find one job to pay the bills, Porter quit following her teaching muse. She has spent the past six years managing Express Check Cashing on Main Street in Billings Heights.

Choices and challenges Porter likes her job and calls her bosses "really nice people."

"I do a good job. They tell me I do a good job," she said.

Porter started at $6 an hour and boosted her pay to $10 an hour by managing the office. But, she has no medical coverage and worries about that every day.

Porter said she appreciates her job but looks around at her under-employed friends making $6 to $8 an hour and wonders.

"Women have the children and the low-paying jobs. It just doesn't make sense," she said. "They should have the high-paying jobs to take care of their kids."

A recent report by a group called Women's Opportunity and Resource Development in Missoula found that 66 percent of Montana women worked outside their homes in 2000.

The median income for these women was $20,914 per year, or $9,589 less than Montana men. Median income means that half earn less and half earn more.

"Montana ranks first in the nation in the rate of increase of poverty and second for the percentage of children living in poverty," the report concluded.

In Montana, more than 50,000 children, or 22 percent, live in poverty.

The report also found that nationally more than $34 billion of child support payments each year are never paid. About 66 percent of single moms receive no child support in the United States.

Hard-knock solutions If Porter were in charge, she would have the federal government guarantee that the court-awarded checks arrive each month.

If the noncustodial parent refuses to pay, she'd have the government take the money out of the deadbeat's Social Security account.

"Kids need food now. They need clothing now and education now," she said. "They can't wait for the courts and all the delays."

She said she is furious that the last Montana Legislature trimmed child-care support for the working poor.

"You just can't cut day care. You have three kids and it costs $800 a month," Porter said. "It would take the whole salary to break even, just to hit zero."

And she doesn't understand why there is still such a huge wage gap.

In the 2000 census, nationally women earned 63 cents for every dollar a man earned.

In Montana, the gap was wider. Women made 55 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Porter said she knows many small businesses are struggling, but so are single parents.

"If people could live the life of a single parent for one week, you'd see things change," she said. "Especially the politicians."

Like abandoning her dream of teaching children, Porter has given up on retiring at a reasonable age.

"I see my future as working until I'm 70. I don't think it (retiring) will happen for me or my friends," she said. "We'll at least have side jobs."

Content for now Three of Porter's children have graduated from college and a fourth daughter is almost finished.

Even without kid pressures, Porter finds herself caught in a Looking Glass rut.

To give teaching another shot, she needs to scrape up about $600 to refresh her teaching credentials. That's money she doesn't have and she's still paying off student loans from the 1990s.

As far as switching jobs, she said not many pay better.

She's even uncertain about chasing benefits, given how unstable the job market is today.

"Look around and there aren't too many places that pay benefits and some of those businesses are cutting them," she said.

Her son wants her to move to Nevada where she still might find a teaching job. But another daughter and her little boy live with Porter. Her daughter also works at Montana State University and helps pay the family bills.

"That's what happens in life. Something comes along, picks me up and saves me," she said.

Five of her best friends are under-employed and none are male.

Porter doesn't have time to attend job conferences like the one this week in Billings. But she is interested in the topic.

"I'd like to see any positive outcomes for employment that arise from these conferences," Porter said.

If she was in charge, Porter said she'd appoint a board of working women to solve some of Montana's economic problems stemming from low wages, a lack of opportunity and geographic isolation.

"We'd probably cure a lot of ills," she said with a laugh.

Of the 20 speakers at the Montana Economic Development Summit Wednesday and Thursday, three are women.

Porter keeps a sunny attitude but wonders about life's twists and turns.

"I regret not being a teacher, but that's the way it goes," she said.

Jan Falstad can be contacted at (406) 657-1306 or at jfalstad@billingsgazette.com.

Montana economics by the numbers

- 1st in the nation in the rate of increase in poverty

- 2nd in the nation for the percentage of children living in poverty

- 3rd in the nation for children living without health insurance

- 3rd in the nation for the number of people holding multiple jobs

- 7th in the nation for female heads of households living in poverty

- 46th in the nation for median household income

- 50th in the nation for annual wages per job

- 65 percent of children under age six have two parents working, compared to 59 percent nationally

- 66 percent of Montana women age 16 and over work outside the home

- 68 percent of working women earned less than $20,000 per year

- 84 percent of the state's women earn less than $30,000 per year, compared to 63 percent of working men

- 27 percent of the companies are owned by women, which ranks high nationally

Source: The Montana Women's Report issued by the Women's Opportunity and Resource Development Inc. of Missoula based mostly on 2000 U.S. Census statistics

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