The Origins of the Feminization of Poverty
The United Nations Development Fund for Women reports that women are still the poorest of the worlds poor, representing 70% of the 1.3 billion people who live in absolute poverty. They also estimate that nearly 900 million women in the world have incomes of less than $1 a day. In the United States alone, women are about 50 percent more likely to be poor than men. The feminization of poverty in America has steadily increased since the 1950s. Researchers have investigated the reasons for this increase, citing everything from teenage pregnancy to the rise in deadbeat dads. Over the last thirty-five years there have been several trends in our society that have contributed to the feminization of poverty.
In 1978, Diana Pearce published a paper citing that poverty in America was becoming more and more feminized. She cited that almost two-thirds of the poor over the age of 16 were women. Pearce also claimed that even though there were more women entering the labor force between 1950 and the mid-1970s, womens economic status had declined. She argued that the blame for this feminization of poverty belonged to the government because of their lack of support for divorced and single women.
She argued, for many the price of that independence has been their pauperization and dependence on welfare (McLanahan 1). Further examination of the issue has shown that various changes in the family have contributed to the feminization of poverty.
The last thirty years has seen a steady increase in the amount of children born outside of wedlock. In 1960, about six percent of all births were to unmarried couples whereas by 1996 over a third fell into this category (McLanahan 5). This influx of births to single mothers has weighed greatly on women in poverty. The statistics of children born to unmarried black couples is even more dramatic increasing from 22% in 1960 to 70% in 1996 (McLanahan 5). Most women in the lowest quintile of the population have come from generations of poverty before them and their only hope of survival is to get on their own and try to get education or job training. With the birth of children, these impoverished women now have two or three dependents to support and the cycle of poverty continues. Most of these women do not have families to support them and they are left with only one option government support.
This has contributed a great deal to the rise of single mother households.
Another contribution to the rise in female-headed households has been the increase in divorces. Sarah McLanahan, a researcher at Princeton University, noted that in 1950, most people remained married until they or their spouses died, but today over half of all couples end their marriages voluntarily. The divorce rate the number of divorces each year per 1,000 married women rose steadily during the first half of the twentieth century and increased dramatically after 1960. Over half of all marriages contracted in the mid-1980s were projected to end in divorce. After the marriages are ended the custody of the children almost always goes to the mother. Now the mother becomes the single provider in her family, facing a job that pays far less than the job her male counterparts have, and on top of that her needs are greater because she has custody of their children. Karen Holden and Pamela Smock noted the problems women face after their marriages have ended:
Women’s post-dissolution economic hardship is due to multiple interrelated factors, often only superficially coupled with the marital dissolution event. In particular, the division of labor during marriage, lower wages paid to women both during and after marriage, and the lack of adequate post-dissolution transfers to women imply that unless changes in women’s work roles are mirrored by social policy initiatives and men’s assumption of equal responsibility for children (both within and out of marriage), economic prospects for previously married women will remain poor (Holden 52).
As single mothers, these women are thrown into unfamiliar territory, and the outcome has been a greater amount of women below the poverty threshold. With this rise in female-headed households below the poverty line has come an increase in the need for government assistance.
Between 1963 and 1973, there was a 230% increase in the amount of American families on welfare (Besharov 3). The amount of welfare caseloads remained at a constant high until around 1994, when some believe the economic boom played a role in the decline of welfare caseloads. However, reports have shown that although welfare caseloads are decreasing the disposable income among single-mother families with children has actually decreased. A study issued by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that between 1995 and 1997 the poorest 20% of persons in single-mother families, a group consisting of incomes below 75% of the poverty line, average disposable income fell $580 per family.
This is a decline of 6.7% since 1995; around 80 percent of these declines were in means-tested assistance (Besharov 8). This proves to be far more serious because these women are losing the benefits that come along with welfare programs like: Medicaid, food stamps, and job training. Benefits that poor mothers rely on to achieve a decent quality of life for their children.
Another deterrent to female-headed households getting out of poverty is the gender wage gap. The glass ceiling many women come in contact with, some believe, have set women back economically, socially, and psychologically. The gender wage gap has been a great deterrent to women trying to get ahead. In June of 1998, Bill Clintons Council of Economic Advisors issued a report called Explaining trends in the Gender Wage Gap, in this report they noted that even though the gap has gotten smaller it still exists into todays labor market. In the introduction of the report the advisors claim the following:
Although the gap between women and mens wages has narrowed substantially since the signing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, there still exists a significant wage gap that cannot be explained by differences between male and female workers in labor market experience and in the characteristics of jobs they hold. After hovering at about 60 percent since the mid-1950s, the ratio of women’s to men’s median pay began to rise in the late 1970s and reached about 70 percent by 1990. The gender pay ratio is currently on the rise again, surpassing 75 percent in 1997 Studies consistently find evidence of ongoing discrimination in the labor market and support the conclusion that women still face differential treatment on the job.
The study goes on to claim that for every dollar a man earns women earn 75 cents. It also says that child-bearing decisions still profoundly affect women’s career path, and the glass ceiling, while cracked in places, remains firmly in place (CEA 10). Women are continuously faced with discrimination in the work force, but they continually overcome these obstacles.
Even though the outlook looks grim, most women will actually choose a route of independence. These women wish to raise their children on their own despite the economic hardships that go with it. They prefer to be independent regardless of the lower standard of living that is set before them. By nature, women are becoming more independent and the typical stereotypes are slowly, but surely dissolving away. Now that women have made steps toward their independence, in spite of glass ceilings and discrimination, there are still obstacles that need to be overcome.
Once women who were without work outside of the home do find outside employment, guilt can sometimes creep into their thoughts. When one looks at poor single-mothers who are being forced into work by the new welfare guidelines imposed on each state by the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), we can see the dilemmas that can come with returning to work.
These women, whether by law or predicament, are forced to choose between caring for their children and making low-wages at a job with zero benefits. Gwendolyn Mink, a professor of political science at UC-Santa Cruz and a longtime campaigner for welfare reform, believes that welfare mothers have been unfairly targeted. She charges that the basic elements of the new welfare reform policy lower the situations of poor single mothers. Mink explains:
The broad support for disciplinary welfare reform is rooted in the view that mothers’ poverty flows from moral failing. Both Democrats and Republicans emphasize the wrongs of mothers–their “unwillingness to work,” their failure to marry (or stay married), their irresponsible sexuality and childbearing. Accordingly, the legislative debate about welfare was a contest among moral prescriptions, rather than a conflict between perspectives either on the role and responsibilities of government or on the rights and responsibilities of women.
Women now have 60 months to get off welfare and to find a job, with even stricter time limits in some states. In the year 2002, these women will be forced off the welfare roles regardless of their situation that means a loss not only in a guaranteed income, but also in benefits essential to raising a family.
Another group that has contributed to the feminization of poverty is the elderly. There have been estimates that state nearly 16% of all women age 65 and older have incomes that place them below the poverty line. Women also consist of two-thirds of the near-poor elderly (Conway 110). As a group, the elderly have three potential sources of income: old-age pensions provided under social security, private pensions, and savings and investments. All three sources have proven to be inadequate to women retirees mainly because the systems were put in place in the 1930s when the average family had a husband who was employed and a woman who worked within the home.
The problems women face are that they do not work long enough to acquire a pension plan or they do not work for employers who offer the plans. Also because of the wage gap mentioned earlier, women did not receive enough income to accumulate savings for their retirement years (Conway 114).
Many elderly women are entitled to receive survivors benefits from their deceased spouses private pension. However, many people waive this right in order to receive more benefits while the spouse is alive. Until 1984, a womans spouse was allowed to waive this right without out her written consent (Conway 113).
In order to combat the problem of the feminization of poverty the United States Congress and the President will have to not only come up with a better welfare system, but will also have to battle the problems of the gender wage gap and the issues elderly women have with pension plans. All of these trends contribute to the overwhelming majority of women in poverty. With the cut off time of welfare benefits fast approaching the government or private institutions (depending on ones political opinions) must do something to counteract these trends and they must do something quickly, before the feminization of poverty in America reaches epidemic proportions.