According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau “There were 37.0 million people in poverty (12.7 percent) in 2004, up from 35.9 million (12.5 percent) in 2003…In each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, women’s earnings were less than men’s in 2004” (US Census 2005 .
Poverty in America is a statistic most of us- especially the current Administration, would like to forget. “After a decade of improvement in the 1990s, poverty in America is actually getting worse. A rising tide of economic growth is no longer lifting all boats. For the first time in half a century, the third year of a recovery (2004) also saw an increase in poverty. In a nation of nearly 300 million people, the number living below the poverty line ($14,680 for a family of three) recently hit 37 million, up more than a million in a year” (Alter 2005 42).
When it comes to downsizing, outsourcing, low-paying jobs, women seem to bear the brunt of it. And, when the economy falters, women are usually the ones to feel it first and more severely. This is not merely due to single-parent families in need, it is about the inequality of the job market, due to gender discrimination. “‘Over the last three years, more and more women have fallen into poverty, with the loss of jobs, decrease in wages and increase in the number of uninsured helping to push many women into an uncertain and potentially devastating financial situation,’ said Christina Smith FitzPatrick, senior policy analyst for the National Women’s Law Center” (Sullivan 2004 O).
The poverty figures for men and women in the U.S. are truly disproportionate.. While women out umber men in total population, men come off better (if that is the proper term) than women when it comes to poverty. The Census Bureau compared the incidence of poverty among men compared with women. Look at these outrageous statistics:
POVERTY RATES FOR ADULT WOMEN AND MEN IN 2003
Increase compared to Women Men Men
All adults (18 or above) 12.4 8.9 39%
Age 65 or above 12.5 7.3 71%
In extreme poverty 5.1 3.8 34%
Single parents 35.5 19.1 86%
( US Bureau of Census, 2004)
There is another area that is often overlooked when it comes to discussing the leading causes of poverty among women in America: The fall from middle class standards due to divorce. In an article about a divorced woman’s dilemma, one reads: “Like a growing number of women, she found that her standard of living dropped when she divorced her husband. Married, such women depended on their husbands’ income to support the family while they raised children and ran homes. Alone, they often lack the job skills and work experience they need to get good jobs. The result: Today, divorce is the single biggest reason that middle-class people slip into poverty” (Maran et al 1987 10).
As can be seen, there are too many women living below the poverty line. While there may be a good number of reasons, perhaps we need to concentrate on three: (1) Head of a single-parent household with no time to look for work, or work, because there is no money for child care. (2) lack of education (or ambition) which leaves only minimal-skills work at minimum pay; and (3) some personal downfall- divorce or loss of spouse and lack of preparation for the consequences.
There seems to be proof that marriage, in many cases, eliminates poverty or low income status for mothers. “Disadvantaged women who had children out of wedlock had substantially lower rates of subsequent marriage than other women. Poverty and welfare receipt were substantially lower for those who married and stayed married than for those who never married or were divorced. The economic benefits of marriage were especially strong among women from disadvantaged families. However, poverty rates for women who married but later divorced exceeded those of women who never married” (Lichter, et al 2003 60).
In a recent NBC newscast (Oct. 31) statistics proved that there were over 500,000 births to unwed mothers in the U.S. this past year, but there were far fewer teenage mothers, and more having out-of-wedlock children in the Twenties. This seems to indicate that, while teens might have some shelter at their parents’ home, women in their Twenties, without support from the father, may well be on the road to poverty, welfare and some sort of despair.
“The working status of women contributes to their poverty status. In many instances the husband bread winner is not a part of the family portrait which creates the single female head of household. So, in many instances, women are being forced to choose between working and being the full time homemaker. Then, the type of jobs single heads of household can get depends on their level of education. Often, women have low levels of education and they get low skill level jobs that pay low wages. To further exacerbate the financial stress many jobs pay women 60% of the income they pay men for doing the same job” (Braddy et al 2005 2).
As to the link between underachievers in school (including dropouts) and poverty is obvious. For many young girls and women living in inner cities or housing projects, generation after generation of poverty continues to exist because there seems to be little or no motivation to use education as a springboard to get out of the cycle of poverty and welfare. For one thing, there are few role models, except for show business and athletics, that many young women- especially minority women, can emulate. Seeing little or no hope for achieving anything by means of further schooling, the drop out rate continues to climb, well beyond what actual statistics seem to indicate. What’s more, merely showing up for class and thus being “enrolled” for tax purposes, is little incentive to learn and achieve. With few marketable skills, many women are therefore left for low-paying jobs, fast food chains, convenience stores, house cleaners and laundry work. The mind set of some of these minimum-wage workers is that “I make more if I’m on welfare.” So, they quit jobs, become pregnant (worst case scenario) and slip further into poverty. In some extreme cases, of course, this leads to drug use and prostitution. It is not a pretty scenario. There are exceptions, of course. But, as the statistics (above) clearly show, women are far worse off in this, the richest country in the world. Poverty is not some sort of far-fetched image, but a daily reality for millions of women.
“Level of education generally determines the skill level of women and the pay level of jobs made available to them. While the relationship between education level and job level seems direct, the feminine perspective has to consider a detour. Decisions about how much education to get have to be considered along with decisions about when to have children” (Braddy et al 2005 6).
According to the news release from the U.S. Census Bureau (2005): “While education reduces the likelihood of being poor for both men and women, women are much more likely to be poor than men with the same level of education. In 2004, women with a high school diploma but no college were 34% more likely to be poor than men with a high school diploma but no college, with a poverty rate of 13.5% compared to 10.1% for men. The 4.8% poverty rate for women with a bachelor’s degree (or more) was 26% greater than the 3.8% rate for men with such a degree” .
The third reason for poverty among women- the loss of a spouse (through death or divorce) often leaves the woman bereft of any earning ability, and thus slides from middle class to the poverty level. “Overall, however, it tends to be women who suffer more financially as a consequence of divorce,” she said. Widowhood is currently the major reason unattached elderly women, who have among the highest poverty rate of any group… at 42%, are without a spouse and the financial support that offers” (Beauchesne 19993).
One also needs to include a growing segment of the poverty stricken: the elderly, those over 65 living on fixed incomes, which seldom is sufficient to maintain a decent life. “Another group of women in poverty is the elderly female. In 1991 there were 32.5 million people 65 years or older in the population and 11.4 % was the poverty rate among that age group. The elderly poor consist largely of poor females” (Braddy et al 2005 11). According to the National Economic Council, “the poverty rate for elderly women was higher than that of men: in 1997, the poverty rate of elderly women was 13.1 percent, compared to 7.0 percent among men. Among unmarried elderly women, the poverty rate was significantly higher – about 19 percent” (NEC 2005 1).
In this brief overview, focusing only on women, it is clear that the problem, of poverty is not going to disappear. There will always be poverty, the economists claim. The point is- there should be a good deal of today’s poverty that could be eliminated or lessened. And yet, as one smug economist summed it up: “Factors that have increased the poverty rate include, in order of importance, the increase in the unemployment rate, the growth of female-headed families, and (possibly) an increase in dysfunctional behavior associated with the rise of the underclass” (Sawhill 2005 3). It seems like this underclass consists more and more of women.
Not enough is being done, even though some agencies are trying. “Such anxieties were identified at the 1995 Beijing Conference under the heading of “Women and Poverty,” one of 12 critical areas of concern. The 189 participating countries signed a “Platform for Action” at the conference to commit to improving women’s overall condition. According to a recent report card of the United State’s subsequent efforts, “Women and Poverty” received an “F,” the only failing grade among the 12 categories. US Women Connect, a network of national and grassroots women’s and girls’ organizations, filed the report card. The group is meeting in New York City today through Friday. The “F” signifies “total inaction or negative impact,” said Alexandra Spieldoch, who as a board member of Center of Concern, a nonprofit social justice organization, helped craft the synopsis of the women and poverty category. ‘The economic issues for women are so huge,’ Spieldoch said. ‘Thirty-four million people still live in poverty [in the U.S.]. This is simply unacceptable’.” (Levin 2000 1).
What is somewhat bothersome is that many economists compare the U.S. with other nations, often using statistics from Third World nations, as well as nations in Southeast Asia to try to point oujt that Americans still have it better- there are child labor laws, no child brides permitted, and no sexual slavery or other forms of discrimination against women holding jobs or owning property. But, the U.S. is supposedly the richest nation on earth with (arguably) the best system of education available to all, regardless off gender or ethnicity. And yet, millions of women live in poverty with little or no hope of emerging any time soon. How can women be motivated and stimulated to get out of this desperate poverty cycle? In the Kennedy-Johnson years, the Peace Corps and Job Corps offered opportunities for useful, compensated work, especially the Job Corps for “disadvantaged” young people. Now, there is no stimulus. These women are the true American underclass.
Alter, J. “THE OTHER AMERICA; AN ENDURING SHAME: Katrina reminded us, but the problem is not new. Why a rising tide of people live in poverty” New York: Newsweek. Sep 19, 2005. Vol.146, Iss. 12; pg. 42
Beqauchesne, E. “Divorce Statistics” www.divorcereform.org/econ.html
Braddy, V. : “Poverty Among Women:” Ohio State University Fact Sheet
Levin, S. “Help for women in poverty gets a failing mark” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, January 5, 2000
Lichter, D. T.; Graefe, D., Roempke; D. and Brown, J. B.: “Is Marriage a Panacea: Union Formation Among Economically Disadvantaged Single mothers”
Social Problems, 2003, Vol 50, iss. 1
Maran, M., Perris, B., Miller, D., Cohlerr, L. and Nathan, J.: “The new faces of poverty; the U.S. economy is healthy, but more Americans are poor than at any time since the 1960s” Scholastic Update, March 23, 1987 v119 p6(4)
Sullivan, M. “U.S.: WOMEN’S POVERTY DEEPENS AMID SLOW 2003 RECOVERY” Women’s E-News, August 2004 p0
Sawhill,I. “Poverty in the United States” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics
No author listed: “Poverty Rate Increases, U.S. Census Bureau News, Aug. 30, 2005