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From poverty to prosperity: How the Jeremiah Program helps single moms reach their potential

Published: Saturday, Dec. 21 2013 4:00 a.m. MST

Tracy Cuspard of Austin, Texas is participating in Jeremiah Program to finish her education and pursue a degree in nursing to provide a good life for her 3-year-old son Benton.

Courtesy of Jeremiah Program

When she feels overwhelmed, Tracey Cuspard sits down with a pen and paper for a few minutes of doodling. Between curlicues and geometric shapes, she’ll write her full name, followed by "R.N."

“I’d be so embarrassed if anyone saw these,” said the 44-year-old of Austin, Texas, “but when I am struggling, it reminds me of what I am working so hard for.”

Cuspard is a full-time student at Austin Community College, working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing. To support herself and her 3-year-old son, Benton, she works the checkout at Walgreen's 20-30 hours a week.

Juggling the pressures of school and the demands of motherhood is not for the faint of heart. Cuspard is determined, but her resolve got a boost this fall when she was accepted into Jeremiah Program, an innovative effort to help low-income, single moms emerge from poverty.

Although education is the key to moving out of poverty, finishing a degree is more difficult — and expensive, especially considering the need for single mothers to have safe, affordable housing and quality childcare.

Participants of Jeremiah Program live in furnished units in an apartment building owned by the nonprofit as the program helps put them through college. Their children attend an onsite daycare. Meeting rooms in the building provide space for participants to meet with staff for life-skills classes, parenting advice and community gatherings.

“We try to give them the safety net that women from middle-class families have so they can finish school,” said Gloria Perez, president and CEO of Jeremiah Program. “If a woman from a well-off background becomes a single mother while she’s in college, she can move in with her parents, have family members watch her kids while she is at school. Our mom's don't have that kind of family support."

Better jobs for moms

Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., and with locations Saint Paul, Minn., Fargo, N.D., and Austin, Texas, Jeremiah Program serves one of the most vulnerable populations in the United States. Single-mother headed families are four times as likely to live in poverty as families headed by married parents, according to federal census data. Although 73 percent of single mothers work, their median family income is $23,000 per year, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center.

Federal surveys of socioeconomic indicators suggests that insufficient education keeps many single mothers in low-wage jobs.

“Education is the key to change” for many of these women, according to Perez. A recent independent evaluation of Jeremiah Program by the St. Paul-based Wilder Institute shows that participants who earned about $9 an hour when they entered the program were earning about $20 an hour after graduating from the program.

Jeremiah staff discuss with participants the connection between education and employment. “We encourage them to think carefully about the kind of education they pursue,” Perez said. “We try to be realistic with them about what to study. A girl may love music, but that probably won’t pay the bills.”

When a friend suggested Cuspard study nursing, she was skeptical. “I remember thinking, 'That is a lot of science, and I am more of an English person,' ” she said. But exploring the possibility with her Jeremiah Program advisor convinced her. In her home state of Texas, a nursing shortage has driven up wages. Coming out of school Cuspard could be earning as much as $60,000 — a huge pay bump on the $8.75 per hour she earns at Walgreens.

A positive role model

Cuspard has found school difficult. “I hadn’t been in school for years," she said. “In anatomy class I had no idea what they were talking about. I wanted to run home and never come back.”

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