The harsh cycle of poverty for Chicago’s Latina women

Why poverty for Latina women could be more detrimental than for other groups

The harsh cycle of poverty for Chicago’s Latina women
Josefina Tercero. (Marcela Cartagena / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

Celene Adame is the mother of five children: Emanuel, 17, Abraham, 14, Sharon, 10, Wilmer, 6, and 18-month-old, Anthony.

A few months ago, Celene woke up with a sharp pain on the left side of her brain, just above her eyebrow. She took Tylenol, believing it was just a random pain that would surely go away. The next day, Celene began to vomit uncontrollably. She drank Gatorade thinking it was just a stomach bug. As she became iller, her mother rushed her to the emergency room, where she learned the unimaginable: she had stage four glioblastoma brain cancer.

She recently finished chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but won’t know if she is cancer-free until a few more years. A few weeks ago, her oncologist gave her the green light to work with extreme precaution, but leaving home for work it’s something that terrifies Celene due to the dangers that covid-19 could bring if she were to be infected. Despite her fears, she will venture out and look for work because there is simply no other alternative, she said.

Her husband Wilmer, a partner of 11 years, is unable to work due to his inability to move his fingers in one of his hands, caused by an injury he suffered on his left clavicle during an ICE raid in 2017. He had been mistakenly detained because his name erroneously appeared in the Chicago Police Department gang database. He was released 11 months later. Today, he also suffers from panic attacks and convulsions. He needs surgery but is uninsured.

Celene and her husband are unemployed and depend on Casa Catalina, a Catholic Charities food pantry, for food. Her mother held a fundraiser, where she and others collected $1,600 for the rent. But the family is on the verge of having their electricity cut off despite Celene’s pleas. Nevertheless, she is eternally grateful for her landlord’s generosity, who hasn’t put any pressure on their inability to pay rent on time.

All the kids, except the youngest, went through counseling at their school before the coronavirus crisis. Their oldest brother, Emmanuel, is always worried about his parents’ financial struggles. He is hoping to find work at Mariano’s or any fast-food restaurant.

Abraham, the 14 year old, sometimes stands in front of the neighborhood’s laundromat or the grocery store El Güero, selling chocolates.

She said she is trying hard not to succumb to a deep depression. She is grateful that she still has her eyesight after her brain surgery and the ability to walk and think straight.

Celene Adame. (Marcela Cartagena / La Raza)

The story of Celene Adame is one of many  Latina women struggling to survive and make ends meet while residing in Chicago, one of the world’s largest economies, but a city known for decades of segregation, deep-rooted corruption, and racial inequality.

“Chicago is really a city of neighborhoods and where your zip code can often determine your outcomes in the city,” said Katie Buitrago, director of research with Heartland Alliance. “Opportunity is concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and a lot of the Latino population in Chicago are in neighborhoods that have less investment and important things like infrastructure, education, and economic development.”

According to a report on Illinois poverty released by the Heartland Alliance in 2019, the numbers show that Latina women’s poverty rate is 18.4 percent, slightly higher than the Chicago poverty rate overall, which is 17.4 percent.

Undoubtedly, the covid-19 crisis has worsened extreme poverty among Hispanic women because the unemployment rate for this group is higher than the rest of the workers in general, according to a report by the Pew Research Center published in August. Hispanic women have experienced a particularly steep increase in their unemployment rate, from 5.5 to 20.5 percent between February and April 2020. By comparison, the unemployment rate for Hispanic men increased from 4.3 to 16.9 percent during this period, according to the report.

The impact of poverty for Latina women can be more detrimental than for other minority groups because of factors such as immigration status, language, and cultural barriers. Undocumented Latina women have more difficulty finding jobs, are more likely to work for low wages or below the minimum wage, and don’t qualify for welfare, healthcare, housing, and other programs that other permanent residents and U.S. citizens do.

Ward 25 Alderman Byron Sigcho Lopez said that poverty within the Latino community is enormous, especially among women. “There’s a lot of sexism, a lot of domestic violence problems. You can clearly see the challenges they face,” he said.

As part of her recently launched campaign to fight poverty in Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot gave a frank view on poverty in Chicago in a persuasive and emotional speech delivered at the nonprofit City Club of Chicago on Feb. 14. “Poverty is killing us. Literally and figuratively killing us. All of us. Not just the souls that are locked in its seemingly unrelenting grip. The people who are hungry, without stable shelter and no prospects for economic self-sufficiency. Those poor souls are suffering to be sure, but so are we, the rest of us.”

“Am I making you uncomfortable? I mean to. Facing these hard truths is not easy.The process is painful, but face it we must and we must do this together, neighbor to neighbor. Without a united effort, a common sense of purpose, we cannot right the wrongs that have brought us to this place,” Lightfoot said in her remarks.

Researchers say the most significant factor that influences the high rate of poverty for Latina women is immigration. Since many Latina women are undocumented, they struggle to obtain work authorization leaving them with limited job opportunities. For that reason, they are more likely to work for less than the minimum wage, or in low-quality jobs without any employment protections or benefits.

“For some, their legal status makes it very impossible to find decent work. I see that legal status as a major barrier that, if removed, might prevent cycles of poverty,” said Joanna Dreby, an associate professor of sociology, and an affiliate in Latin American, Caribbean and U.S. Latino Studies at the University at Albany in New York. “The burdens they take on economically are very significant.”

Marilu Gonzalez, regional director of Southwest Regional Services of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago, believes that since Latinos keep silent about their immigration status, the rate of Latina women living in poverty is probably triple the 18.4 percent.

Sister Joellen Tumas, a Catholic nun who has been working for the Latino community since the 1970s, agrees. “That’s because women keep silent and are hiding in fear of being found by immigration.”

The data comes from the American Community Survey, a product of the Census, and it’s therefore “the official rate,” Katie Buitrago said. However, “there are limitations with Census/ACS data. The 10-year Census does not ask about immigration status, but the annual ACS survey does. This question likely deters some undocumented people from responding to the survey. So, it likely undercounts undocumented people.”

“If undocumented people have higher poverty rates than Latinos in general, the official poverty rate from the ACS/Census may underrepresent true poverty rates for Latinos,” Buitrago said.

Gonzalez said that “unfortunately, Latinas have always been very cautious about speaking out about saying how they feel, or what they think. And that’s historic. That has something to do with immigration, but it’s more to do with migration. You know, it has to do with the fact that culturally, we were never taught we could speak out as women.”

“So you are present, but you are not present. You’re there, but you’re not there. You count, but you don’t count. So in many ways, it’s like there is silence in the circle. Many women feel like, well, can I really say something?” Gonzalez said.

Buitrago said that Latina women also face discrimination and racism in the workplace, and “they might be struggling to make ends meet with two or three jobs that might make it hard to get childcare. There’s also just lower educational attainment among the Latino population in Chicago. So that might also make it harder to get [good paying] jobs.”

Besides, research shows that the highest risk of poverty and the highest spikes in poverty rate take place in the months after childbirth for low-income women.

“And that can be really hard for families who suddenly have increased costs. Women take on a higher percentage of the unpaid care work in this society. We spend more time caring for families who spend more time taking care of the household,” Buitrago said.

Immigration, a significant factor

As part of Mayor Lightfoot’s campaign promise to fight poverty, her office and several partners held a summit called “Solutions Toward Ending Poverty” on Feb. 20, 2020, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In a conference room packed with hundreds of advocates, community and business leaders, professionals, researchers, and academics, the Mayor kicked off the anticipated and highly promoted event with speeches, presentations, followed by two sessions of discussion panels.

One of the panelists was Marci Ybarra, an associate professor in the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, who discussed how undocumented families are struggling from not receiving welfare aid, and how federal immigration laws are creating confusion and keeping mothers from enrolling children who are already eligible for certain benefits.

“It creates a ripple effect across a family and a community rather than something that only happens to an individual,” Ybarra said.

“The welfare reform in 1996 excluded, with a few exceptions, immigrants in the US for about five years from receiving any public assistance. And researchers, including myself, looked at the decline in enrollment for kids who are in immigrant families, especially programs like Medicaid,” Ybarra told the audience at the summit.

“And it turned out that even eligible kids after that legislation, were not enrolled in Medicaid,” Ybarra said.

The exclusions and restrictions for immigrants in accessing public programs led to a decline in immigrant parents enrolling children who are eligible. This is what “we call a chilling effect that is not related to eligibility but influences those who are eligible,” Ybarra said.

Latina women’s economic hardships worsen when a father or partner gets deported. “Latino women are taking up the slack and having to provide for their kids. What was once two salaries suddenly is one, and they’re bearing this burden, and it’s very, very difficult,” professor Dreby said.

Dreby described the case of one family who, after the father was deported, the mother had to work until 9 pm, leaving her 13-year-old daughter to become the primary caregiver for her younger siblings, from 3 to 9 pm every day. “And this [scenario] can be fairly common,” Dreby said.

Professor Dreby’s research explores family dynamics under conditions of increased globalization, with specific expertise on international migration, gender, and children. She said she had interviewed women who have reluctantly left their children behind in their home country with the hopes of saving enough money to return and help their children as soon as possible.

“It’s not a choice. It’s a forced choice, and it is a very difficult decision. And the idea is always reunification as soon as possible and financial support of their children in the meantime,” professor Dreby said.

“A lot of these mothers anticipate being able to send for their children much sooner than they actually are able to do so,” Dreby said. “Even though they’re working, that money isn’t really enough to go as far as they hope it will.”

Latina women experience poverty differently from other communities born here, as there are layers to their experience, said Amanda Benitez, director of community health at Enlace Chicago.

“They are dealing with poverty, and with race, and the discrimination that they experience because of the color of their skin, but they’re also dealing with language barriers, figuring out how to navigate those systems.

“They’re also dealing with the immigration system and fear of like ICE coming and knocking on their doors or taking their kids to school and encountering ICE along the way,” Benitez said.

Neli Vazquez-Rowland, co-founder and president of A Safe Haven, added that “the cost of poverty is astronomical because whenever you have a woman, especially if she is a mother and she doesn’t get the ability to support herself and support her children. That definitely leads to a huge ripple effect in terms of their health and well-being.”

The Mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, spoke at the Solutions Toward Ending Poverty summit in February, 2020. (Marcela Cartagena / La Raza)

The high cost of poverty

According to the 2019 Heartland Alliance report, the consequences of poverty among Latina women are as complex as staggering.

Latinas face hardships on many fronts: they are paid less, have less wealth, are more susceptible to wage violations and wage theft, are more likely to work in low-paying jobs, have higher incarceration rates, are more likely to suffer domestic violence, and have poorer health. Nearly a quarter of Latina women in Illinois do not have a personal doctor, the report says. Thirty-two percent of Latina women in Illinois are more likely to report poor health status than white women (16 percent).

Latina women are also more likely to face racism, sexism, and sexual harassment in the workplace.

In addition, the report shows that “human trafficking exists because poverty exists. Traffickers seek out individuals who are missing something—economic opportunity, education, documented immigration status, love, support, or safety, for example. The largest group of people identified as trafficked in the U.S. are Latino.”

Poverty inevitably also affects mental health. “In Little Village, we have really high rates of stress and anxiety and depression,” Benitez said.

Another layer to the problems immigrant mothers face is that “there’s emerging research on the impact of raids on moms during pregnancy as well as their children. And so it’s been found in a number of papers now, that immigration raids on workers have had the significant effect on children’s birth weight,” Professor Ybarra said at the summit.

Domestic violence

Is there a correlation between poverty and domestic violence, especially for Latina women? The answer, according to researchers, is yes.

“Unfortunately, Latino women—like all women—often face situations in which they are experiencing domestic violence, and domestic violence can lead to interactions with ICE. So supporting women and those types of situations rather than tearing families apart is another key area that I think cities can do work to help support families rather than make things more difficult,” researcher Joanna Dreby said.

“Women who are living an extremely stressful situation tend to stay a lot longer in those abusive situations because there is an economic dependence,” Vazquez-Rowland said. “And that in the Latino community, especially for the undocumented is a very, very difficult challenge.”

Katie Buitrago said that in another study conducted by the Heartland Alliance, they found that there is a vicious cycle between domestic violence and poverty. “For one thing, if you live in poverty and you’re experiencing domestic violence, it can make it harder for you to sort of leave this painful situation. If you’re economically dependent on your partner, you might not have the resources to move out. Or they [the abusers] might use methods of economic abuse to control you, like preventing you from getting a job or ruining your credit so that you can’t get an apartment on your own. And so it can make it much harder for women to restart their lives.”

How are children affected by poverty?

Ariel Kalil, a professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, another researcher who spoke in a panel during the poverty summit, discussed how poverty affects children, even before they are born.

Kalil said there is research in neuroscience and development psychology that highlights the importance of the early childhood period for brain development and the role of the environment in shaping the brain’s structures and capacities that will carry us forward throughout the lifespan. “And in the field, we refer to this as plasticity or malleability of brain development,” she said.

This means that early in childhood, event before a child is born, the brain is sensitive to negative influences, such as the conditions associated with poverty and the stresses it causes. “But also the brain is particularly responsive to positive [influences] it pulls from the environment. So it’s both a very challenging time for children who are born into low-income circumstances, but also very significant,” Kalil said.

Research also shows that experiencing poverty in childhood can have far-reaching effects throughout that child’s life. This means that the likelihood of exiting the cycle of poverty is very low.

In Joanna Dreby’s interviews, she said that “younger adults often talk about feeling like they’re growing up too fast and [didn’t] have childhoods that are the same as their peers.”

“This is why it is so it’s important to increase the incomes of parents with young children to make sure that they can meet their needs early on and really set a strong foundation,” Buitrago said. “We need to make sure that we are taking care of the parents to make sure that they are equipped to meet their children’s needs.”

According to Kalil, “parents share the same hopes and goals and aspirations as does any other parent. But life gets in the way a lot. And there’s a lot more stress and hassle factors and frictions in low-income households that seem to stand in the way of parents being able to carry out those aspirations.”

Josefina Tercero. (Marcela Cartagena / La Raza)

Josefina Tercero and her husband, Jorge, live on an annual income of less than $19,000 for a family of four residing in Pilsen. Sometimes, when she has been able to find a temp job cleaning apartments in downtown Chicago, she has had no choice but to walk from Pilsen all the way to Wabash or Michigan Avenue because she has no money for the bus.

She remembers how she and her husband lived through three critical months when they didn’t have any money left for food. They relied on the food pantry. Her younger son would ask for apples and milk, so she would carefully ration the milk and apples to make them last.

She was worried that the quality of the food from the pantry wasn’t good, so she figured out creative ways to make the family meals more appealing.

She becomes emotional when she says she has taken her kids out to eat two or three times at the most in the 17 years she has been residing in the United States. It saddens her to see her children compare themselves to other kids.

With the unexpected arrival of covid-19, their economic situation worsened because the number of job opportunities decreased drastically, and could not receive any economic aid, neither from the government (due to their immigration status) nor from nonprofits.

Fully enraged and frustrated, Josefina shares her experience when she tried to obtain a $1,000 cash assistance for undocumented families from the Chicago Resiliency Fund through The Resurrection Project. As soon as the phone lines opened, Josefina patiently began to call for hours and days without ever receiving any response. “I feel like I wasted my time with liars and fake people. It was a waste of energy for nothing. It’s too much. Each day goes by, and I don’t know what else to do,” she said.

(Sarah Powell, the spokeswoman for The Resurrection Project, said that during June and July, the organization received hundreds of thousands of calls, making it impossible to assist all families. Powell added that the organization maintained a throughout and clear communication with the public through their social media accounts and website. “We understand and apologize to everyone for the frustration,” she said to La Raza.)

Her 19-year-old daughter, Ana Gabriela, suffers from sharp and constant chest pains that numb her left arm and three of her fingers, leaving her unable to carry on a normal life. Doctors can’t figure out what’s causing the pain. No one in the family has health insurance and don’t qualify for Medicaid. Her parents pay her medical costs out of pocket in any way they can.

But more than anything in this world, Josefina wants a stable job. Anything, she says. She is exhausted with the instability of work, and she figures out ways to make some money by cooking enchiladas for neighbors, cleaning apartments and homes, shoveling snow in the neighborhood, and selling scarfs and hats that she knits.

She loves to read, bravely shows up to all pro-immigration protests, and is highly active in the community and her children’s schools. The lack of opportunities and money here in Chicago and back in her hometown in Michoacán, Mexico, kept her from achieving her dream of becoming a teacher.

She says she accepts her life as it is and does everything in her power to remain positive and keep on fighting and living for herself and her family.

A look at Chicago’s history: How did we get here?

To understand Chicago’s decades of inequality and segregation, it’s essential to look at its history back to 1934 when redlining was established with the National Housing Act.

Redlining was a system in which banks and other financial institutions would deny mortgages to black and Latino applicants.When determining whether to approve a home loan, bank lenders would use a neighborhood map outlined in different colors, with red meaning “risky.” Areas with a higher density of minorities were more likely to be redlined than other white neighborhoods with similar incomes. This discriminatory practice resulted in the residential segregation we see in Chicago today.

Although redlining was outlawed in 1968 through the Fair Housing Act, discriminatory lending practices continued for years all over the U.S.

As recent as 2015, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made a $200 million settlement with Associated Bank, a nationally chartered bank, for unfairly rejecting mortgage applications from black and Latino applicants in Chicago and Milwaukee. As part of the agreement, the bank was also required to open branches in non-white neighborhoods.

According to Elizabeth Todd-Breland, an associated professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also spoke at the poverty summit, “segregation also was profitable, and it continues to be. Landlords can make greater profits by charging exorbitant rents for poor quality housing.”

“Often we talk about the relationship between segregation and housing and schooling together. But residential segregation alone cannot explain the level of segregation in Chicago Public Schools. CPS policies exasperated residential segregation [by] building new schools or locations to maintain segregation and redrawing attendance boundaries to maintain segregation,” Todd-Breland said.

Todd-Breland said that along with segregation came disinvestment and loss of jobs, as 95 percent of new development took place in only seven of the city’s 70 neighborhoods around the loop and surrounding areas. The disinvestment exasperated the poverty among minority groups as they faced a lack of quality public services, living wage jobs, grocery stores, commerce, healthcare, adequately-funded schools, mental-health clinics, and affordable housing.

Job losses and deindustrialization also hit Chicago hard in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s.

Between 1967 and 1982, a quarter of Chicago’s factories closed, cutting 250,000 jobs, almost 46 percent of the city’s industrial workforce. This dramatic change increased inequality. “For the top 20 percent of earners, their wages increase. As the city was losing jobs, someone was regaining jobs. And this created a spatial mismatch, particularly for black and Latinx communities,” Todd-Breland said.

Criminalization has also been part of a broken system affecting poor communities, researchers say. “Poverty is ultimately about money. And the more we criminalize poverty, the less we can invest in helping people get out of poverty,” Simon Balto, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Iowa, said at the poverty summit. “There is money in this city. It’s just concentrated. I’m talking about a particular section of the city budget, that be the portion of the budget that goes to punishing people.”

Balto argues that a portion of the city budget that is appropriated to the Chicago Police Department—which continues to increase every year and now is at about $1.7 billion—should be spent tackling the root of the problem by expanding youth programs. Chicago spends more than $4 million every day on policing.

Furthermore, an investigative report by ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ last year said that traffic fines and parking tickets create an out-of-control debt and even bankruptcy for minorities since they can’t afford to pay the high cost of tickets and late fees. “Drivers who don’t pay what they owe face tough punishments from the city and state that threaten their livelihoods,” ProPublica reported.

As a result of their investigation, in November of 2019, Chicago’s City Council approved new reforms to change the punitive system and ended the suspension of driver licenses due to unpaid parking tickets.

Jocelyn Fontaine, director of criminal justice research at Arnold Ventures, said at the poverty summit that“what may be an easy payment or reasonable cost for some, for another family is completely unreasonable. This exacerbates poverty or pushes people into extreme poverty.”

“The punishment for the failure to pay some of those economics sanctions result in crippling debt, and even the inability to vote sometimes. It’s counterproductive,” Fontaine said.

Access to programs and public assistance

Whether undocumented or not, access to public assistance and social programs for Latinas can be highly bureaucratic, challenging, and even confusing.

Alderman Sigcho Lopez said that access to health and medical coverage is a severe problem within the Latino community, which disproportionately affects Latina women in particular.

“Many mothers who work two or three jobs have no health coverage or benefits and are responsible for their homes. There is no access to public service. These mothers basically work to sustain themselves without any public help,” he said.

“Mental health service is a tragedy for children and entire families because there is no access,” Sigcho Lopez said.

In some instances, the waiting time to get a counselor, social worker, or psychiatrist can be as long as nine months, he said. “We have a responsibility to make those resources accessible to all communities. We need agencies and departments to step up and do something.”

The challenges for undocumented Latina women, including DACA holders, are even more significant because they don’t qualify for any public assistance (unless it is a life-threatening emergency) for them or their children unless the children are U.S. citizens. These federal programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, sometimes referred to as food stamps), regular Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Undocumented immigrants are ineligible for healthcare subsidies under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and are prohibited from purchasing health coverage.

Even those with permanent residency, with a few exceptions, are not eligible for any public assistance until they have resided in the U.S. for five years.

But in some states, there is some relief. In Illinois, the All Kids program provides healthcare coverage to all children regardless of their immigration status. Besides, undocumented children have access to public education, providing relief to parents as schools offer breakfast and lunch to children from low-income families.

Applying for benefits can be frustrating and confusing, advocates say. For instance, as of Feb. 25 of this year, the Public Charge rule imposed by the Trump Administration went into effect all over the country, affecting anyone applying for the permanent residency.

The rules have been unclear, say professionals who work helping immigrants, but basically dictate that an application for permanent residency can be denied to anyone who has received public benefits for 12 months over a 36-month period. Benefits received before Feb. 24, 2020, will not be taken into account.

“This tactic is meant to cause confusion in the community. And we’ve seen that a lot of people are very confused. It’s even been a challenge to get our own workers to really understand [the Public Charge rule] because it’s very complex,” Amanda Benitez of Enlace said.

“This is just going to make poverty levels rise and cause more harm to an already struggling community,” she said. “It’s going to keep people from enrolling for benefits that their children are eligible for.”

Where do Latina women turn then when there is no public aid? Thankfully, numerous nonprofit and faith-based organizations in Chicago are devoted to helping those living in poverty, especially women.

One of them is Casa Catalina, a food pantry located in the Back of the Yards neighborhood owned by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Sister Joellen Tumas runs the location.

Sister Tumas recalls the case of a couple who showed up with eight children asking for help in the middle of winter. Despite the freezing temperatures, no one in the family had any jackets, coats, or proper shoes. “They had no idea of city streets and numbers. We asked, where do you live? We had to walk home with them to find out where they lived. They had nothing. Two days later, the baby in the family ended up in the hospital with pneumonia,” she said.

“We need to understand the immigrants. We need to get back to the old mentality of welcoming them. We need to understand how difficult this is for these families to leave everything behind. They’re escaping such terrors. And what are they coming to? More terror,” Sister Tumas said.

Casa Catalina is a trusted location because of its history and its relationship with the Latino community, said Marilu Gonzalez.

“There is a reality that women are working more, which means that they have to figure out childcare in different ways, and maintaining their home becomes a huge priority,” she said.

To support and empower Latina women, Gonzalez said she started a group called Mujeres Floreciendo, which means women are blossoming. “And the group of women began as a tool or a mechanism [for women to see] what their strengths are, what their values are, know that they have rights,” she said.

Mujeres Floreciendo became so successful that they started another group to help women find their potential and maybe even become entrepreneurs.

Latina women have so many talents, Gonzalez said. “They know how to bake. They know how to cook. They know how to sew. They know how to create things,” she said. “But they never knew that that is something that they can actually sell.”

This year, Gonzalez said her program was able to get some funding through a Catholic Charities campaign for human development to begin to look at how those talents can be utilized strategically.

“We want them to grow their business, become entrepreneurs, look at themselves, and say, yeah, I did that. I made that happen,” Gonzalez said.

Another very well-known organization in Chicago devoted to helping the poor is A Safe Haven Foundation, which helps people get out of extreme poverty, homelessness, and addictions, and become self-sufficient.

Vazquez-Rowland said her organization helps about 5,000 people every year and has a success rate of 70 percent of people completing the program. Those who don’t complete the program are referred to another level of care.

“We take people regardless of their [immigration] status. Our job and our mission are really to address the root causes, mentally, physically, and economically in a way that’s going to help them, not just them, but their children, too,” Vazquez-Rowland said.

Other nonprofits, such as Enlace in Little Village, tackle education, health, immigration issues, and violence prevention. They have also been able to help women in desperate situations through their emergency funds, to help them cover last-minute costs for basic needs.

Since there is a strong connection between poverty and mental health, Enlace works to help women overcome their anxiety, stress, and depression through support groups led by trained professionals in safe spaces such as churches and libraries.

Benitez said that hundreds of Latina women can find support for their mental health needs in their language thanks to this program. “We want them to feel comfortable in these informal and safe spaces so they can talk about their lives, their struggles, stresses, depression, and anxieties that they may have,” Benitez said.

“People come into the program with moderate to severe levels of anxiety, depression, stress, and then after six to eight months in the program, we see those levels going down towards more mild or lower, moderate,” she added.

Marilu Gonzalez and the noon Joellen Tumas at Casa Catalina. (Marcela Cartagena / La Raza)

Is Chicago really a Welcoming City? Not really, advocates say

“The City of Chicago is considered a welcoming city. Right? The question I have for the City of Chicago is: how, where, and when. Where is that present? And what location? Is it in City Hall? When they have to go to get their municipal Id?” Gonzalez said.

“So how is it that we are really welcoming people in a city that’s so vastly diverse, but so vastly segregated? And I don’t know the answer. I only know it’s a problem,” she added.

Sister Tumas agrees: “It’s the whole immigration picture or whole immigration law because that puts them [immigrants] at puts them on the bottom. The city, the state, isn’t going to be too excited about helping Latina women because they’re not voters. They’re going to go and help black [communities] because they are citizens and they vote. That’s a little underlying thing that a lot of people don’t think of.”

In her speech delivered at the nonprofit City Club of Chicago, mayor Lightfoot said the City had failed miserably for decades to break the cycle of poverty but has made it worst with a lack of reforms and real action.

“We did this,” she told the audience. “We have our fingerprints all over the impoverished conditions in which so many of our residents languish.

“We did this historically by using government as a tool to create and enforce race-based discrimination that killed, crushed, and systematically reduced the lives of too many over generations. A whole infrastructure perfected over time, and savagely enforced for centuries, which at its core embraced an ethos that black and brown, Asian and indigenous lives did not matter, period. The past is very much our present.

“We did this by voting for politicians who embraced this ethos and used every toolat their disposal to perpetuate the deprivation and disenfranchisement of people who looked like me solely on the basis of race, ethnicity or national origin.

“And we continue to do this today and every day, by looking the other way, saying it doesn’t affect me, or the problem is too big to solve.

“Government and we the people created this monstrous problem, and we the people must solve it,” Lightfoot said.

But in terms of the City helping immigrant Latina women, not much has been said nor done, advocates insist.

In response to advocates’ skepticism, Mayor Lightfoot’s Office sent the following statement to La Raza:

“The Lightfoot administration is acutely aware that poverty in Chicago is a racialized and gender-driven and manifests for Chicago Latinas in unique ways. As a first step, Mayor Lightfoot convened hundreds of Chicago business, community, nonprofit, philanthropic and public sector leaders for the STEP Summit, to make clear how we as a city arrived at this point, identify examples of policy solutions that we know can lift people out of poverty and into the middle class, start to break down silos and begin the building of a movement with residents that will make Chicago a hub of anti-poverty innovation.

“Following the summit, the City will now launch a community engagement and listening process that is predicated on the fact that economic struggle can be profoundly different even within the same neighborhood when looking at gender, race and other structural factors Chicagoans are living with.

“This next phase of the work will be an opportunity for City policymakers to hear from residents—Latinas included—so we can be clear about what their economic struggle really is like, and how the City can devise solutions responsive to their unique needs as well as the shared challenges facing nearly 40 percent of Chicagoans living in economic insecurity.

“These findings will inform the creation of a community-centered policy roadmap to ending economic hardship and creating durable pathways into the middle class. As this new approach to policy making unfolds, the Lightfoot administration has already taken important first steps to help people by, for example, ending water shut-offs for inability to pay by low-income homeowners, embarking on ongoing reform of a regressive fines and fees system, passing ordinances to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2021 and guaranteeing a fair and predictable work schedule for low-wage workers, including thousands of Latina residents and other women of color working in the restaurant and service economy.”

Looking forward

Researchers, academics, and advocates have looked at several recommendations that would help break the cycle of poverty among Latina women. Still, it all comes down to one critical key: immigration reform. Immigration reforms as they are today are deepening poverty levels.

Buitrago said that considering the issues that are particularly faced by immigrant Latino women, “we need to expand pathways to citizenship and to getting people into jobs that have proper protections.”

In addition to immigration reform, Buitrago said that employers must be held accountable to make sure that “they’re not violating workers’ rights, or doing things like wage theft.”

“It is also critical that people have a living wage. We need to make sure that people’s basic living wage can meet the needs,” Buitrago said.

Buitrago explained that the federal poverty line is arbitrary because it’s based on the cost of food in the 1970s multiplied by three and adjusted for inflation, but it doesn’t take into account housing and rental, childcare, healthcare, and insurance costs.

In addition, providing affordable housing is another crucial step in fighting poverty. “This is something that we hear a lot about from our participants at Heartland Alliance as a need…Affordable Housing can be really hard to find in a city like Chicago and we’re not investing enough and making sure that there’s enough affordable housing units,” Buitrago said.

In the 2019 Heartland Alliance report on poverty, experts recommend several steps to reduce gender inequity, including:

  • Addressing discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • Increasing income and wealth-building opportunities for women.
  • Requiring employers to provide paid sick time, fair scheduling, and establish family and medical leave policies.
  • Expanding the availability of subsidizing childcare and dependent care tax credits.
  • Expanding Medicaid.
  • Defending women’s reproductive rights.
  • Ensuring pre-existing condition protections and maternity benefits.
  • Strengthening federal public aid programs.
  • Strengthening mental health and violence prevention programs.
  • Boosting protections against wage theft for immigrant women.
  • Enhancing protection for survivors of trafficking.
  • Supporting pathways to citizenship.

Investing in social programs – public and nonprofits

Advocates say that social programs that already have established systems to help disadvantaged communities need more support, as they are working with smaller budgets and less staff.

“Statewide, we’ve been disinvesting in these anti-poverty programs for years, which was more severe during our [state] budget crisis several years ago [during the Governor Rauner Administration],” Buitrago said.

Vazquez-Rowland added that it’s essential “to think more comprehensively and more holistically around the issue. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, try to support those places that are already doing most of the work. We have to think how we can invest more in making sure that these [programs] can grow and expand in a way that can help more people get the help they need.”

Investing in government social programs and nonprofits will have a positive outcome in the long run for generations. “There are things that [the government] can do to provide housing for undocumented folks, rental assistance for undocumented folks. The state could put resources towards [these programs],” Benitez said.

“We actually get a return on our investment,” Vazquez-Rowland said. “For every dollar that we invest, we save at least $7 and other costs associated with the burden of having someone that’s dependent on the system.”

‘The only way out of poverty and ignorance is through education’: Ana Gil Garcia

Professor Emerita and consultant Ana Gil Garcia, also a prominent leader in the Latino community in Chicago, believes that the only way to break the cycle of poverty is through education.

“Education is a human right. Education will be and will continue to be a springboard for individual progress and for community progress. Because when we save one, we’re really saving an entire community,” Gil said.

“My mother always told us, I have no wealth, I have no land, no jewelry, but here [her children] everyone will study, because the only way out of poverty and ignorance is through education,” she said. “The most expeditious way for us to get out of this poverty, which is sometimes not just social poverty, but mental poverty, marginal poverty, is through education. Education is the only mechanism we have to get out of poverty.”

Gil also pointed out that equity in wages continues to be a barrier for professional and non-professional Latina women.

According to the 2019 Heartland Alliance report, in Illinois, women still earn, on average, 78 cents on the dollar compared to men. But the wage gap is worse for Latina women: for every dollar earned by white men, Latina women earn 50 cents, black women earn 63 cents, and white women earn 76 cents.

If this trend continues, women in Illinois will not see equal pay until 2065.

The report added that eliminating the gender wage gap would dramatically decrease working women’s poverty rates. “That would translate into a 16 percent increase in women’s earnings, totaling $20.5 billion—a huge boost for Illinois’s economy. It means 1.1 million children would benefit from equal pay, reducing the poverty rate for children with working mothers by 43%,” the report indicated.

“We have two conditions. One is being a woman, and the other is being Latino. When we have that combination, that combination makes us more vulnerable,” Gil said.

Young Latinas not getting support while attending college

Despite popular belief, not all Latino parents are fully supportive of their daughters attending college. Some young Latinas face scrutiny, questioning, and pressures at home, in addition to feeling out of place and unwelcome on campus.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, about 42 percent of Latinx college students enrolling at a public institution will not obtain their degree within six years. They drop out of college without a degree and with significant debt.

Findings from a recent study by the University of Chicago professor Micere Keels indicates that sometimes Latina students often have to navigate different identities while attending college.

Keels’ findings came as part of a broader research, which looked at how campuses across the United States aren’t doing enough to make black and Latinx students feel welcomed. Her research was published in the book Campus Counterspaces: Black and Latinx Students’ Search for Community at Historically White Universities. She argues that counterspaces, also referred to as safe spaces, are essential to students’ psychological and emotional well-being from historically marginalized groups.

Latina women feel like they have different identities and have to balance family expectations while attending college, “because many of them are expected to be at home and maintain traditional family values. There are gendered expectations of them to stay closer to home and manage familial responsibilities,” Keels said. “This contrasts traditional female college students who have college-educated parents, where she just goes off to college and focuses on being a college student.”

This issue might be more prevalent for “the very traditional parents who might be immigrants to this country. It might feel as if they’re losing the ability for their culture to carry on in their children,” she said.

Gil-Garcia agreed, “we see that sometimes when the daughter decides she wants to study in college, then questions begin. It’s a fear, as parents think that the daughter is now going to become someone else. In reality, parents themselves instill more fears than support. When parents being less educated, you’re going to see that more often.”

Buitrago added, “More traditional family structures might want women to be at home or with children, which might make it harder for them to pursue educational opportunities or go out into the workforce in a way that would allow them to move out of poverty.”

The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. 

The editorial production of La Raza is made possible in part thanks to the support of the Chicago Community Trust, the Field Foundation of Illinois, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism/Facebook Journalism Project and the Google News Initiative. We appreciate their help.