Tackling Economic Obstacles: Making a Living Wage is Tough For Vermont Women

Published February 18, 2016 // The Colchester Sun

What’s the largest economic obstacle for Vermont women? According to Carmen Tall, an Essex woman who was recently named Director of the Women’s Small Business Program at Mercy Connections, the answer is simple.

“Making a living wage,” Tall said.

According to a report released last month by Change The Story VT (CTS)—an ongoing strategic partnership to improve women’s economic status in Vermont—Tall is right.

The report states that 43% of women who work full-time do not earn enough to meet basic expenses as defined by Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Office. 17% make hourly wages of less than $10.10 an hour.

The CTS report explained that women in Vermont are significantly more likely than men to live in poverty or economic insecurity. CTS used U.S. Census Bureau Public Use data to determine that 57% of Vermont women have incomes that fall below $30,000, while 57% of men have incomes above that figure.

Courtesy: http://changethestoryvt.org/

Courtesy: http://changethestoryvt.org/

Addressing those troubling figures and helping women find financial security is one of Mercy Connection’s primary goals. Mercy Connections is an educational values-driven non-profit seeking to advance Vermont women’s self-sufficiency through education, mentoring, entrepreneurship, and community.

Accordingly, the non-profit sponsors many programs, trainings, and events designed to help women identify and understand their financial situation and make plans for the future.

One of Mercy Connection’s signature offerings, The Women’s Small Business Program, has continuously operated since the days of Trinity College in Burlington. Mercy Connections itself was founded by the Sisters of Mercy as an educational nonprofit after Trinity College closed in 2001. 

Self-employment and entrepreneurship can be beneficial to women for several reasons, Tall said, and can help women take control of their work situation.

“Women often have different life goals. They may appreciate self employment and flexibility that it offers,” she explained, adding “It is also a sense of empowerment when you’re running your own business.”

Yet, the road to self-employment may not be easy for Vermont women. In its 2013 assessment, The Center for Women in Business— a project of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce— found that Vermont had a lower than average share of full-time self-employed workers who are female. Vermont ranked 35th out of all 50 states, and its share of female self-employed workers was 35.8%.

Mercy Connection’s Women’s Small Business Program aims to change those statistics. Women can enroll in a fifteen-week “Start Up” course. Students leave the class with a bank-ready business plan that has been reviewed by lenders and financial experts in the Chittenden County community.

These volunteers provide invaluable feedback for students “before they get in front of the banker,” Tall said. She can testify firsthand to the classes’ effectiveness, since she previously taught many of them and witnessed her student’s successes.

In addition to entrepreneurship, Mercy Connections encourages basic financial literacy, a crucial life skill that many Vermont women are not adequately prepared for.

Last year, Champlain College’s Center for Financial Literacy used national data to compile a “national report card” on state efforts to improve the financial literacy of high school graduates. Vermont received a grade of “D.” Among other things, Vermont schools were not instructed to require personal finance classes for graduation; personal finance topics are often taught in elective courses, if they are taught at all; and how these standards are implemented is left up to the school districts.

At Mercy Connections, women can sign up for seven-week personal finance classes with an optional coaching component, and collaboratively move toward their goals.

Carmen Tall, Director of the Womens Small Business Program at Mercy Connections, Burlington, Vermont.

Carmen Tall, Director of the Womens Small Business Program at Mercy Connections, Burlington, Vermont.

“That’s where the coaching comes in,” Tall explained. “It helps women implement and design new habits.”

Mercy also hosts a “resource night,” which Tall describes as “financial speed dating.”

“You go from table to table—insurance, investments, websites— and meet with different representatives from the community. And it’s a wonderful win-win experience.”

Tall stressed that the financial counseling Mercy offers is not crisis management, but rather long term planning.

“We help you get a global picture. It’s ‘how can we maximize the money you’re making?’” she said.

Women of all ages have sought Mercy’s resources.

“Every decade has been represented in these classes,” Tall recalled, “from late 20s and up. We have some women who are 50 or older whose children are gone, and maybe they want to take their life skills and make a business out of them.”

Tall, who graduated from Champlain College and Trinity College with a B.S. degree in Business Administration and founded her own mortgage company in Essex Junction, said she wished she had known about these options earlier in her life.

“I had no idea there were all these resources, especially for women owned businesses,” she recalled.

At an individual level, Mercy Connections encourages women to work in industries that they are passionate about and in jobs that display their strengths.

“Maximize your strength and minimize weaknesses— that’s a formula for success,” Tall said.