Women: The changing face of U.S. poverty

By Neera Tanden
January 17, 2014

We’ve seen a dramatic shift in the 50 years since the launch of the War on Poverty. In today’s economy, poverty increasingly falls on women. They make up over half the workforce, and two out of three mothers are the primary or co-breadwinner for their household.

But one thing hasn’t changed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty: When we think of the poor we still think of someone else. That’s why it’s crucial to share stories — including my own.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, the child of two immigrants who had come from India decades earlier. We lived in Bedford, Massachusetts, a quintessential middle-class town. But when I was 5, my parents got divorced and my dad left. My mother was on her own.

She had never held a job before. She faced the choice of going back to India or staying in the United States and going on welfare to support her two young children. In India, she knew, we would have been stigmatized — no one got divorced there in the 1970s. Children of a divorced woman would have limited life opportunities.

So she decided to stay in the United States. Welfare gave her that choice. We were on food stamps and received housing vouchers to help pay the rent. Thanks to a new state law, we could use those vouchers to move into an apartment in Bedford and remain in our good local public schools. After three years, my mom got a job and moved up. By the time I was 11, she was able to buy her own house in Bedford.

Today, the social compact that allowed my mother to get back on her feet — a commitment to the idea that just because you’re down, it doesn’t mean you’re out — is being put to the test.

Today it is harder for Americans to move up into the middle class and achieve financial security. This is particularly true for women. All the evidence shows that women are far more economically vulnerable than men. Women are four times more likely than men to be raising a family on their own. Almost 70 percent of single mothers and their children are either living in poverty or teetering on the edge.

Though most mothers now work outside the home, few jobs today provide the paid leave time and flexibility that workers need to be both breadwinners and caregivers. Women still spend more than twice as much time on childcare responsibilities as men, which forces many women to cycle in and out of the workforce. This reduces overall pay and makes it far more difficult to move up the career ladder.

While there’s no silver bullet to address these challenges, there are steps we can take. The United States is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee mothers paid leave to care for a newborn child. We also lag behind other developed countries when it comes to how much we invest in child care and preschool. For a low-income family, childcare costs typically amount to 30 percent of the monthly income. As a result, low-income mothers often must choose between paying out-of-pocket for expensive, and often substandard, private programs, or not working, which may diminish their earning power down the road.

There is much we can do to tackle these challenges, as a new report, “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink,” by Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, lays out.

The proposed FAMILY Act, for example, would create a national family and medical leave insurance program, allowing all workers to take up to 12 weeks of leave, with partial wage replacement, after the birth or adoption of a child, to care for a seriously ill family member or to recover from their own serious illness.

We should also stop discouraging marriage through our tax policies. We know that the income of two parents can help children — yet the tax code discourages cohabiting low-income couples from getting married. Until our public policies reflect our family values, we’ll continue to see more women struggling to get by.

The challenges my mother faced — and the obstacles millions of women today encounter – are preventable. They are the results of choices that we make as a society.

Americans are now awakening to this realization that endemic economic insecurity is not inevitable. Work-life conflict is not inevitable. Inadequate and unaffordable child care is not inevitable. Once we are truly roused, our leaders will have to sit up and take notice.


PHOTO: Brenda, who did not want her last name used, and has been unemployed for the last three years, shops for her monthly allotment at Project Concern, a non-profit center that supplies emergency food and household items to families in need in Cudahy, Wisconsin, December 14, 2011. REUTERS/Darren Hauck

PHOTO (INSERT): President Lyndon B. Johnson visits the residence of Tom Fletcher during a Poverty Tour of Appalachia in 1964. REUTERS/Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library/Cecil Houghton


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