Working for Our Working Families

When leaders from around the country gather at the White House Summit on Working Families this week, they'll be focusing on a moving target. What constitutes working families these days is in flux.

As The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From the Brink reported in January, today only 20 percent of U.S. families have a working father and a stay-at-home mother. Instead, two thirds of families depend either partly or wholly on the wages of working women, and many of those families are barely making it. Fully 42 million women in this country and the 28 million kids who depend on them are teetering on or over the brink of poverty.

These aren't women on welfare. They're working. They work in our offices and schools, care for our children, stand in line next to us at the store, sit next to us in church. Still, they're living one single incident -- a flat tire, a emergency-room visit -- away from having to choose between putting food on the table or paying the rent.

Both of us writing this column lead nonprofits dedicated to creating opportunities for these women who are struggling to be both breadwinners and caregivers. The ongoing series of Shriver Reports has raised nationwide awareness, ignited coverage and conversations, and inspired and informed policy makers dealing with the fundamental issues facing modern women and their families. Tipping Point Community in San Francisco has screened hundreds of nonprofits each year to identify those with the leadership, financials and results to make a real impact in the fight against poverty. Tipping Point has impacted 385,000 individuals and families, with 100 percent of every dollar raised going out the door to fight poverty.

We may have different tactics, but both organizations are committed to identifying and scaling best-in-class solutions in the fight for those living on the brink. We've both learned that it's through program models with measurable results that we can create real change.

For instance, take Elizabeth, a single mother in Antioch, California. Elizabeth worked tirelessly to support her family but struggled to find anything more than short-term work in a slow economy. She had hoped that her medical assisting certificate would be all she needed, but she quickly discovered that she did not earn enough in that position to make ends meet. Discouraged at her prospects and not sure where else to turn, Elizabeth started to feel depressed about the future and how she would be able to take care of her daughter.

She attended Opportunity Junction, a job-training program that has been a Tipping Point grantee since 2011. Today Elizabeth is earning $17 an hour as the Inventory Control Coordinator for a local property management firm. Elizabeth and her daughter just moved into their own place and are back on their feet, thanks to an effective organization and the community of smart leaders and investors behind it.

We've both been approached by people who have plenty of compassion, motivation and desire to help mothers like Elizabeth, but they don't know where to go. Not all nonprofits in this field are created equal. Which organizations deserve your help, when good intentions alone aren't enough? Which ones are doing the hard work on the ground to provide not just any shot but the very best shot for women like Elizabeth? It takes due diligence to find out.

First, look locally. You might not know it, but there are likely dozens, even hundreds, of organizations in your area helping these women and needing your support. Identify two or three issues you personally connect with and zero in on a few organizations.

Second, ask questions. Schedule a visit to learn more about the services they provide. Ask what population they serve and why. What essential services, like housing, health care, and job training or college-preparatory education, do they provide? Assess their leadership. What differentiates their model from the others? How do they measure their impact? Great organizations collect data on outcomes not only to prove that what they're doing works but to adjust programming to improve results.

Third, make your choice, and then pledge your time and resources. And finally, hold the organizations accountable by following up to find out where your dollar is going and what happened as a result.

Of course, donations and volunteering alone won't solve poverty. A higher federal minimum wage would give families more breathing room. And with women earning only 77 cents for every dollar men earn doing the same work, an equal-pay law is long overdue. Women also need access to training and education to develop the skills they need to succeed and move ahead. And how about child care and paid sick leave and family leave, like working women get in all other industrialized nations?

But it's not only about government solutions. We've both learned that ending poverty will take a three-pronged approach: public, private, and personal actions and solutions. We can get results not only by voting for leaders who will implement innovative solutions to longstanding problems but by supporting corporations with family-friendly policies, and, with our own "disruptive philanthropy," investing in organizations with known track records of getting the results we want to see.

We hope the president and leaders meeting at the White House this week come up with pragmatic, actionable solutions to support working families trying to lift themselves off the brink. As for us, we bet on the "we" factor. We citizens can effect change. It's up to us. We can be the tipping point.

Maria Shriver is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning journalist who founded the Shriver Report, chronicling and reporting on the seismic shifts in American culture and society affecting women today. Daniel Lurie is the founder and CEO of Tipping Point Community, the San Francisco Bay Area's leading poverty-fighting organization since 2005.