The feminization of poverty is the phenomenon in which an increasing proportion of those living at or below the poverty line are women. This is an important issue not only because it affects women, but because women tend to live longer than men and be at greater risk of living in poverty in their old age, and also because the poverty of women frequently represents the poverty of children. There are a number of correlates that have been found to be related to the phenomenon of women living in poverty. However, these are not causes of the phenomenon nor do they necessarily indicate that a woman is at risk for becoming poor. To better understand the feminization of poverty, it is important to determine what factors place women at higher risk for poverty and what factors mitigate this probability. In addition, better social programs need to be developed not only to help raise the quality of life for women living in poverty through welfare in the short term, but also to raise it more permanently through helping women overcome the factors that make them at risk.
Keywords Capitalism; Class; Conflict Perspective; Correlation; Demographic Data; Ethnicity; Feminism; Feminization of Poverty; Gender Role; Gender Stratification; Poverty Line; Race; Sexual Discrimination; Socialization
If one takes a tour of any large city or metropolitan area, the reality of poverty and homelessness quickly becomes apparent. On one hand, one can typically see luxury apartment buildings, high-end shops, and other trappings of affluence. On the other hand, one can also see public housing, homeless beggars, and soup kitchens. Although it may be difficult to see these things from the top of the penthouse suite, the truth is that the poor are always with us. Poverty in the United States fluctuates, although in general it has been on the decline since the 1950s; the poverty rate fell each year between 1993 and 2000 (when it hit 11.3 percent), though there was a slight increase later due to the 2008–2009 economic downturn. In 2010, 15.1 percent of the population was living in poverty.
Although historically, issues related to poverty were typically broken out according to race or ethnicity, social scientists today are increasingly concerned with the demographic of women living at or below the poverty line. Although one of the most important demographics in the feminization of poverty comprises young women who are the heads of their households, these are not the only victims. Older women, too, are increasingly affected by poverty due in part to the fact that they live longer than men and are often financially less secure in their later years. In addition, the feminization of poverty affects not only women, it affects their children as well. In 2013 over 30 percent of women-headed families with single mothers were living in poverty. In 2011 more than one in five children lived in poverty and approximately 47 percent of children with a single mother lived in poverty.
Increase in Feminization of Poverty
Of the poor, the disproportionate number has always comprised women and children. However, more recently, the proportion of women and children among those living at or below the poverty line has been increasing. This phenomenon — referred to as the feminization of poverty — is not only national, but global as well. Within the United States, the feminization of poverty is the result of several factors including a dramatic growth in families in which a woman is the head of the household, a decline in the proportion of the elderly who are living at or below the poverty level, and continuing gender stratification with concomitant wage inequality between women and men. For example, more than 40% of women who head households are living in poverty. These women tend to be young, a fact that, coupled with a decrease in wages of young workers in recent years, makes such households more at risk for poverty. Another reason for the increasing number of young women who are heads of households is that extended families—which were the center of familial life for many generations—have become increasingly replaced by nuclear families. This means, for example, that a divorced woman is more likely to set up her own household rather than move back in with her parents. Similarly, single teenage mothers are more likely to set up their own households rather than to continue to live with their parents. As a result, in both these types of situations, a new female head of household situation is created (Pressman, 1988).
In addition, the divorce rate in this country is relatively high and mothers often receive little child support from their former spouses or the fathers of their children, factors that compound to increase the likelihood of women needing to support a family with insufficient income. Further, women tend to live longer than men, making older women more at risk for poverty as their sources of income (traditionally lower because of gender stratification) run out. In addition, many observers (conflict theorists in particular) also note that the feminization of poverty is due to other features of discrimination against women, most notably sexual harassment, sexual discrimination in the job market, and the difficulty in finding affordable child care. Because of such factors, women living in poverty tend to live with lower income than men living in poverty.
Lower Educational Achievement
Some observers have suggested that the feminization of poverty is a result of lower educational achievement by women. However, statistics show that education levels have increased rapidly not only in general but for women in particular since the era of World War II. A more promising explanation, therefore, is the changing age in racial makeup of households headed by women.
Despite the alarmingly high figures for the feminization of poverty, not all women living at or below the poverty line are doing so permanently. Many are in transition while undergoing an economic crisis such as the death, disability, or departure of a spouse. However, the other half of poor women in the United States are dependent on either the welfare system or on friends or relatives for help. The feminization of poverty is due not only to sociological issues, however, but to political ones as well. Federal budget cuts in recent years have also contributed to this phenomenon. For example, in November 2013 the US Congress cut the budget for food stamps by about $5 billion, which affected 47 million people. In addition, since women tend to be more reliant on public sector jobs than are men, federal budget cutbacks also negatively impact the ability of poor women to earn an income.
Relative Proportions of the Sexes
The feminization of poverty is a serious issue, however, and it has been proposed that there are some difficulties with this concept that may make it misleading. Gimenez points out that far from being an increasing trend, the relative proportions of the sexes living in poverty has not changed since the earliest available data gathered by the Census Bureau (1999b). Given this relative consistency of the statistics, therefore, there are some difficulties in considering the concept of the feminization of poverty as a recent and intensifying process.
There are some difficulties with the concept and the way that it is sometimes extrapolated to apply to all women equally. Gimenez rightly points out that the concept of the feminization of poverty is based on census data that do not differentiate between the social classes (1999a). As a result, the concept of the feminization of poverty is often framed in statistical categories rather than theoretical ones. For example, although too many women live at or below the poverty line, other women in the middle and upper classes do not. Many of these may have jobs that...
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