This series looks at the corporal works of mercy through a feminist lens. You can read part one of the series on homelessness here and part two on women’s imprisonment here.
The phrase “give alms to the poor” always makes me think of someone holding out their hand, hoping for cash, or the lady feeding the pigeons in the park in Mary Poppins. The image of the “poor person” has been imagined in our literature, movies, and media representations. We all have an idea in our minds of “the poor.” Because of this, many of us have strong opinions regarding poverty, the government, and our own personal aid. Those in poverty become a caricature, a stereotype, or a policy debate. Our individualistic society and “bootstraps” mentality make it so that we blame the poor for their poverty and offer solutions about what they should do, rather than look at the systems in place that keep the poor impoverished.
Poverty, like homelessness and imprisonment, is experienced by women differently and in a more burdensome way than by men. There is even a term for this phenomenon: the feminization of poverty, which is “the phenomenon in which women experience poverty at rates that are disproportionately high in comparison to men” and “the social and economic patterns that keep women disproportionately poor around the world.”
In fact, women make up 70% of the 1.5 billion people in the world who live in poverty. The result of this “feminization of poverty” is not only that more women than men are poor, but also that women suffer more from less access to education, healthcare, property, job training, and capital. Furthermore, this result means that women face more discrimination, hardships, and obstacles to lifting themselves and their children out of poverty.
Women face more discrimination, hardships, and obstacles to lifting themselves and their children out of poverty.
In the U.S., we may be tempted to think that this global issue doesn’t apply to us because we have successful women in politics, medicine, research, and other fields. However, the data shows that these same issues also plague women in our country. In 2018, 16.8 million men (10.6% of the population) lived below the poverty line whereas 21.4 million (12.9%) of women lived below the poverty line. When considering single parent families, the numbers compare similarly: there are 6.5 million single dads (12.7% of the population), compared to 15.1 million single moms (24.9%). These numbers get even more compounded by race, age and ability so that those living in poverty are:
- 20% Black women
- 18% Hispanic women
- 22% Native American women
- 10% Asian women
- 29% women with disabilities
And, around two-thirds of the elderly poor are women.
The “feminization of poverty” is rooted in several systemic issues such as the gender wage gap, low wage work being done primarily by women, a lack of affordable housing and daycare, and the stereotype of the “welfare queen” or “bad mom.”
Gender Wage Gap
The gender wage gap has been an issue central to feminism for at least the last 50 years. It is also a major contributing factor to the higher poverty rate for women.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW) as of Fall 2019, the typical woman in the U.S. earns $45,097 while the typical man earns $55,291, meaning that a white woman typically earns 82 cents for every dollar a white man earns in the same position with the same experience and qualifications. As expected, women of color suffer even more of a wage gap:
- Black women make 62 cents on the dollar
- Hispanic women make 54 cents on the dollar
- Asian women make 89 cents on the dollar
- Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander women make 61 cents on the dollar
- Native American women make 57 cents on the dollar
The AAUW’s research also shows that the wage gap increases over the course of a woman’s career and that women’s retirement income is only 70% of men’s because they have earned less and therefore paid less into Social Security. This means that the wage gap is not only affecting women in their present lives, but can be harmful to their long-term and future security.
What causes this wage gap to persist? The AAUW suggests a combination of factors: “undervaluing of women’s work, implicit bias against working mothers and direct race and gender bias.”
Work associated with women tends to pay less, so much so that “when an influx of women enters a previously male-dominated profession, wages for the occupation as a whole decrease.” The National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) found that "[t]here is a gender wage gap in 97 percent of occupations. Skeptics of the wage gap may also insist that the wage gap exists because of the occupational choices that women make. However, this argument ignores the fact that ‘women’s’ jobs often pay less precisely because women do them, because women’s work is devalued, and that women are paid less even when they work in the same occupations as men."
This wage gap also appears as the “fatherhood bonus” and “motherhood penalty.” Working men who are fathers are viewed as responsible, loyal, hard-working, and good providers for their families. Working women who are mothers, on the other hand, are typically seen as uncommitted, unfocused, and unreliable. Mothers are paid 69% as much as fathers and typically earn less than both men and other women. In the end, mothers are recommended for lower starting salaries, perceived as less competent, and are less likely to be recommended for hire.
This is a particularly disheartening bias considering that the majority of women in poverty are single mothers who are the sole wage earners and caretakers of their children. In her book Forget “Having It All,” journalist Amy Westervelt cited a study by researcher Michelle Budig concluding that “[f]or certain cohorts of women - namely white, never-married women without kids - the wage gap was nearly closed...but the parenthood wage gap was increasing.” Budig also found that “the lower your income, the higher the penalty” meaning that “the women who least can afford it pay the largest proportionate penalty for motherhood” (Westervelt 171-172). Based on their findings, the AAUW argues that “at the current rate of progress, the pay gap will not close until 2093.”
[T]he majority of women in poverty are single mothers who are the sole wage earners and caretakers of their children.
Another cause for the gender wage gap is that “women are underrepresented in higher paying jobs and overrepresented in low paying jobs.” The NWLC found that in 2016, women made up about two thirds of low-wage jobs, defined as those paying $11.50/hour or less, even though women make up less than half of the overall workforce. When looking at minimum wage workers, six out of every ten are women.
In tracing the history of motherhood in America, Amy Westervelt found that this division of labor began with the Industrial Revolution when employers “took the view that all women were married and being supported by a husband, and thus could be paid less because their income was merely supplemental,” a view that informed labor laws which went on to view women as a “special class of employee,” inferior to the labor of men (Westervelt 68). She goes on to demonstrate that the prevailing opinion that women, especially mothers, should remain at home combined with the unpaid and undervalued caregiving work often assigned to women created the current situation demonstrated by the NWLC data.
Lack of Affordable Housing, Daycare, and Benefits
Women in poverty must make tough financial decisions regularly, often choosing which basic necessity to pay for when they have the money to do so. Major factors in this decision making include a lack of affordable housing, affordable daycare, and benefits such as paid time off and medical insurance.
The YWCA “believes that safe, decent, affordable housing is vital for women’s successful participation in the workforce,” which is necessary for them to attempt to alleviate their poverty. Affordable housing allows women to find and retain employment, attend education classes, and participate in job training programs, most of which require a permanent address in order to participate.
Within the larger poverty cycle, there are many smaller cycles, such as the need to have a house to get a job and the need to have a job to pay for the house. When housing is not affordable, it can no longer be paid for, and women either lose their jobs or pay for housing to the detriment of other necessities. “According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time minimum wage earner cannot rent a typical one bedroom apartment in any county in the United States . . . without incurring a housing cost burden,” meaning that they have to spend 30% or more of their minimum wage income on housing (“A Gender Lens on Affordable Housing”). This means that 75% of households living in public housing developments or receiving Section 8 Project-Based Rental Assistance are headed by women, many of whom are single mothers. One reason for this is the large numbers of women in low or minimum wage jobs.
Another reason is housing discrimination. For women, especially single mothers, “[a]ffordable units may remain beyond their reach because fair housing laws are not consistently enforced, and landlords have proven themselves wary of female-headed families due to stereotypes that include ‘lazy’ welfare recipients; poor housekeepers; unsupervised, destructive children; and male friends and relatives that get embroiled in physical altercations and engage in illicit activity.”
The policies surrounding government aid are complicated and hard to condense into this article, but to learn more, read this report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As mentioned in that report and by the YWCA, when assistance or affordable housing are available, they are typically far from city centers where most jobs can be found, adding on burdensome transportation costs. The unreliability of transportation can also cost workers by causing tardiness, which often leads to termination.
Due to a variety of factors outlined by the YWCA, women in poverty end up being steered toward neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and crime, and lower quality schools, which only serves to continue the poverty cycle for them and their families.
[W]omen in poverty end up being steered toward neighborhoods with higher rates of poverty and crime, and lower quality schools
Aside from a lack of affordable housing, mothers in poverty must also factor in childcare. For those living in poverty, the cost of childcare is typically around 30% of their income. Combined with the average housing cost burden, mothers lose over half of their income. Mothers often have to make the difficult choice between paying for more expensive daycare but not paying other bills, paying for low quality, less safe child care, or not being able to work at all. If a woman tries to take classes in order to find a higher paying job, this choice becomes all the more expensive and difficult. Like with housing, there are federal aid programs, but they are severely underfunded and leave many women without support.
As mentioned, many women work low to minimum wage jobs, which means that they do not have paid time off or sick leave, health insurance, or other benefits. Some states also limit unemployment insurance to full time workers, leaving part time workers with no assistance if they lose their jobs.
Women who are pregnant or mothers often have to choose between work and things like prenatal appointments or caring for their sick child. Without insurance, many women have to decide between paying for necessary health care or food, rent, and other bills. According to the APA, this leads many poor women to neglect or delay attending to their health care needs. As a result, they end up with more chronic conditions, undiagnosed diseases that would benefit from early intervention, obesity, and diabetes. Women in poverty also suffer higher rates of depression and anxiety and are more likely to develop substance abuse problems.
Without insurance, many women have to decide between paying for necessary health care or food, rent, and other bills.
Factors contributing to and sustaining poverty for women are complex and layered. It is hard to condense them all into a summary piece like this one. As of the writing of this article, we are starting to see these issues emerge even more through the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the questions being raised as we begin to confront the racism in our country.
Maria Shriver wrote in The Atantic that “[t]his nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.” The issue of poverty is often the catalyst for the previously examined issues of homelessness and imprisonment, so fighting for women who live in poverty ultimately means alleviating several injustices and creating an overall healthier nation.
This series will continue with the command to “Visit the Sick,” looking at the ways in which the medical field often fails women.