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

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.”

But she kept at it. Having a 3-year-old who depended on her gave her courage to ask her professors for extra help. Today, she holds a 3.79 GPA.

“I know what I am working for,” she said. “I am showing my son that in our family we do hard things.”

Being successful at school gives single mothers better work options and self-confidence. “They start to believe that they are worth something, that they can take care of themselves,” Perez said.

Watching their mothers succeed is good for kids, too, according to Perez. “We want the children to see early on the role modeling of their mothers literally getting up and going to work and going to school and being active community members when they are young," she said. "We feel like that makes a lasting impression on those kids.”

Quality childcare

Cuspard’s ability to dedicate time to school depends on her access to childcare. “Daycare is a big concern for our moms,” Perez said. “As mothers, our children are our first priority,” and it's hard to focus on school work when you are worried about how your children are being taken care of, she said.

Prior going back to school, Cuspard sent Benton to a daycare near her work. “While he was much-loved at that facility, I worried that he may not be getting the structure he needed,” she said.

Jeremiah Program's daycare uses a nationally recognized curriculum. “My son is blossoming,” Cuspard said. Every day the kids get naps and do educational activities, she explained. “The structure is really good for Ben. Our life is hectic and "having predictable schedule helps him a lot,” she said.

But structure isn’t the only benefit of this daycare. “Benton is being exposed to things that as a single mom in school I can’t afford, but things I want him to have,” Cuspard said.

She appreciates time his teachers take to write her a note every day about what they did and how her son behaved. “It makes me feel like I know what is going on, like I am involved even when I am not always there,” she said.

Benton isn't the only Jeremiah kid benefiting from this daycare program. An independent study of Jeremiah children found that 95 percent pass their kindergarten readiness tests. It's an impressive accomplishment, considering that most research suggest only about 30-40 percent of low-income children enter school "kindergarten ready."

Hope for the future

Cuspard is just at the beginning of her time with Jeremiah Program. How her life will unfold remains to be seen, but the stories of women who finish the program show how life changing a bit of support can be.

Take, for example, Tiffany Meeks, a single mother who graduated from the Jeremiah Program in 2000.

“Before I came to Jeremiah, I was unstable, irresponsible, homeless and full of heartache and disappointment," Meeks told Perez. "But Jeremiah Program planted a seed of hope in me that I would be able to pursue my education and have a safe living environment for me and my daughter.”

After completing her bachelor's degree, Meeks took a job with the University of Minnesota Carson School of Management. As she worked her way up the ranks, she's been able to provide for herself and her teenage daughter, Natalie, in a way she never imagined possible.

But the ability to provide hasn't been the only good thing to come from Jeremiah Program. About six months ago Meeks sat in an auditorium, beaming with pride, as Natalie walked across the stage to receive her high school diploma. In one generation, her family's trajectory has completely changed.

"My daughter graduated from high school," Meeks said. "Her situation will be so different from mine."

Expensive solution

While Perez is confident that her organization’s model for addressing poverty works, she acknowledges concerns about program costs. The average participant and her children are in the program for three years, Perez said. Providing housing, child care and support services for that time period isn’t cheap. Using funds collected from private donors, Jeremiah Programs spends around $25,000 per year, per family on services.

Perez maintains that the results Jeremiah Program gets prove it is a good investment. Research from the Wilder Institute found that every dollar invested in Jeremiah Program families returns $7 to society at large, both by reducing the family's dependence on public assistance and by increasing the economic prospects of both mother and child.

“By extending ladders of opportunity to single mothers and their families, we can make a dent in child poverty, educate and equip children for tomorrow’s workforce, and increase our economic competitiveness,” Perez said.