Monday, January 14, 2013

The Feminization of Poverty

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I recently discovered that January is National Poverty in America Awareness Month. I’m saddened that I didn’t know this beforehand. This sounds like the type of awareness campaign the feminist community would rally behind. Well, even if it's not a terribly well-known campaign month, that doesn't detract from its extreme importance.

Poverty is very much a women’s issue, to the point that it has become known as the feminization of poverty. Both the number and percentage of women in poverty is higher than those of men, and the American poverty gender gap is wider than any other Western country. This trend is static over all ethnic groups.

Why are women so much poorer than men? One reason is because of the wage gap. Compared to the white man’s dollar, Asian-American women make 88 cents, white women make 82 cents, African-American women make 70 cents, and Latinas make a mere 61 cents. According to straight facts, women simply have less access to money than men do, and are therefore more likely to be poor.

Part of the reason why the wage gap is so wide is because women tend to work in lower-paying fields. Almost half of all women in the labor force work within only 20 occupational categories, whose median annual salary is barely $27,000. This makes sense, considering that approximately two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women. A woman paid minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) who has two children is left significantly below the poverty line, unable to adequately provide for herself and her family.

An interesting, but often ignored, reason for the feminization of poverty is women’s likelihood toprovide unpaid caregiving. Women tend to take care of elderly or disabled family members more often than men do; in fact, they make up over two-thirds of unpaid caregivers. When I was at the NOW conference last June, I heard JaniceLynch Schuster speak about this topic at a plenary session. I have definitely seen this trend in action; my aunt and mother took care of my grandmother for several years before her death, my best friend’s grandmother cares for her husband with Alzheimer’s, my mother’s female boss only has minimal assistance from her brothers when it comes to caring for their aged mother, a family friend of ours has been providing care for her mother for years, etc. I can’t actually think of a single man I personally know who serves as the primary care for a parent or spouse.

So how do we change this horrible state of affairs? How can we curtail the prevalence of poverty, especially because of its disproportionate affect on women?

We need to petition our representatives and all politicians to pass bills that will ensure equality in the workplace, help women gain access to quality education, and provide nationally-funded child and elder. Equal pay means fewer women below the poverty line. More education means more high-quality, higher-paying job opportunities. Federal child and elder care means fewer home responsibilities for women and more women in the workforce, lifting themselves up and out of poverty. It means a better, more equitable America for men and women alike. 


  1. Talia, I got a response to this post from JDub on my blog. Hop on over and check out the conversaton.