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


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

“What programs do you propose to cut to get money to pay for such unnecessary subsidy?”

F-35. Next question, please.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Considering 7 bln people on Earth – do you realize that without such family policies only two groups are in procreation (i mean more than 1 child per family) – relatively “rich” ie ones where one parent can provide for entire family – and poor and uneducated who already accept poverty for themselves and their offsprings and often had no idea of contraception.
Anyway, most of population increase is in developing countries like African or SEA ones – and barring genocide USA can do little for containing that. Idea that all people on Earth are entitled for same level of consumption as current ‘golden billion’ enjoys is catastrophic of course, but inequality can be banished TWO ways. One of that ways is highly disliked by people in developed nations :)
“Paid leave” – it includes not only money but right to keep job after that. In ’90s Russia i saw what difference it made for hardworking families during economical downturn. Other side of coin of course was that businessmen were not interested in recruiting women of child-bearing age as long as men with similar capabilities were available.

PS: Is part about taxes favoring single parent true?

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

I don’t see why the hypothetical mother can’t get some paid leave and then go work on the F35 program therafter. Anyhow, you cannot think of money in isloation – ask what happens to it next? A single mother would spend it on medical costs, living expenses and the money would remain in the economy and circulate. The circulation will generate taxes which can be used to buy billion dollar planes to obliterate ‘threats to peace’ (also known as Muslims).

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

This is a stunning fact:

Almost 70 percent of single mothers and their children are either living in poverty or teetering on the edge.

My questions would be how many of these mothers were teens? How many conceived the child(ren) without a partner committed to raising a family? How many of these women were already receiving assistance when they conceived knowing they would be adding additional burdens on the taxpayers?

Not all one child families are “rich.” There are many families who choose to have one child because that is all they can afford. For some even raising one child is a sacrifice. It may be harsh, but why should these families who act with financial responsibility be burdened by women who choose to have children they can not afford to raise?

When a man abandons a women with children, the state does require that the man pay child support. The child support system, while not perfect, does provide the first line of defense for women and children when the man abandons them. And the man and woman need not be married.

It is simplistic to lump all women in poverty or facing poverty in the same basket. For example, there are also many aging and aged women falling into this category. The author has opened a pandora’s box with the article — raising more questions than answers.

Posted by sapho | Report as abusive

‘Maternity leave’ was and is enforced in all large businesses (from ‘not in garage’ manufacturing to large banks). Penalties and court settlements is something even less liked by them than ‘inefficiency’ brought by these laws. Of course ‘cos laws applies country-wide, it levels the field. Small busynesses of course are less than thrilled by this, but _then_ these businesses were outright frauds (at least as far as taxman and Working Code concerned). Nowadays they’ve got some fringe tricks but often it’s simplier to file a bankrupcy than be put under investigation. On other hand from our POV (fed by sensationalized settlement news of course) USA busynesses must be severely handicapped by sexual harrasment and racial/sexual ‘positive discrimination’ laws ;)
As for population booms etc – while Africa can be bad example, major part of Asia is self-sufficient. But their ‘self-sufficiency’ level is well beyond our definition of poverty – and ‘excess’ people tend to seek better places. Remember projections that by 22th century USA will be Latin country? What next waves after ‘latino’ became same as current whites will be is hard to see, but with ‘liberal’ immigration laws and common change in reproduction rates of urban population these waves are inevitable.
As for inequality – sorry, but major misunderstanding and false assumptions there. Poor and ‘stupid’ in USA has more opportunities and (when they miss those) higher QoL than ‘a bit above average’ in most of 3rd World. While there’s historical and ‘economical’ reasons for that, saying that this is ‘fair’ is a stretch. BTW large part of ‘national liberation’ movements and similar groups’ credos is exactly promise of equal opportunities. But this is something economical and sociological scientists argue and write books about and too large a subject for forum discussions.

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

What is causing this economic and social stress at this time are fiscal conservatives and conservatism that believes capitalism no longer has a benefit to creating a better civilization.

Fiscal conservatives no longer believe of investing in infrastructure or people. Any investment is seen as spending. This is documented in our failing infrastructure, lagging education and job training in the world, and attacks on the our quality of life.

We do not have a debt problem, we have a revenue problem!

Since the Eisenhower administration we have gone from a nominal tax rate of over 90% for the wealthy to under 40% in the name of job creation.

You would think by now unemployment would be 0 if this were true.

Fiscal conservatives are socializing the cost of doing business in placing that cost on the public in reducing taxes on employers and deregulation of industry and weakening of environmental laws. A prime and recent example of this is the chemical leak into the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia. These people are so desperate for jobs that they kept taxes low for employers and did not take the advise of the EPA, who they attack, to strengthen their environmental regulations. Now the company is claiming bankruptcy and the municipality, county, state, and federal government are stuck with the bill. While years back fiscal conservatives changed the Clean Up Super Fund from being funded by businesses to now coming out of the general fund paid by citizens not responsible for the spill. Now Charleston, West Virginia is having an economic loss, a lower quality of life, business will now be unlikely to move there, and a loss of tourism.

Why Americans accept capitalism as their economic model is that it provides a benefit for a better civilization. Not everyone accrues the highest wealth of capitalism, but they expect a benefit of capitalism in their lives. If Americans do not see the benefit of capitalism in the way of safe roads and bridges, clean water and air, pregnancy leave, leave to take care of elderly parents, and a general improvement of quality of life their is a threat to capitalism.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Few ever mention that a large percentage single mothers have a “Dad” out there somewhere who should be helping take care of his family – but doesn’t. “Women shouldn’t get pregnant if they can’t take care of the kids” is a popular argument, but get real – - we don’t get pregnant alone. Males should keep THEIR pants on for a change, but I don’t see much social pressure being exerted in that direction (because boys will be boys). Don’t forget that Welfare is subsidizing single women with children who have a deadbeat dad out there somewhere, but shhhh, no one really wants to address that issue.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

One cannot compare a national/world government economy to a common household budget. You just can’t. Apples and ducks. The professionals will tell you that. It’s simple minded to think otherwise.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

No, OOTS, it isn’t only me who brings it up. And, no, it wasn’t me in the bank. And, no, no matter how you insult me, comparing managing a household budget to the national and world economy is comparing apples and oranges. Much as you would like it to be true…

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

‘Mother’ is a ‘work’. As long as we don’t consider this as a (full part) social ativity we cannot pretend to be a civiliization!
For now, it seems, we consider this a ‘non paid’ social activity (i.e. you wanna be a mother: so it is your problem!… (a kind of punishment for a ‘personal fault’).

Posted by Taoffi | Report as abusive

@OOTS, You turn the Reuters forums into your own personal platform with insults, lengthy rants and bad punctuation. Constant insults to those who disagree with you is an unattractive quality and it isn’t persuasive. Stop bloviating, and try staying on topic for once.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Since you all are talking about having children, can you guys help me out? I’m having trouble understanding a recent exchange, and I was hoping someone here could explain a statement that seems like nonsense to me.

Person A said, “It seems YOU believe “Reproductive rights are a fundamental human right” that cannot be restrained for any reason. I don’t. You don’t like that? POUND SAND.”

Person B said in response, “when I exercise my fundamental human right to procreate, the thing I pound isn’t sand.”

Then Person A says, “When your only option is to exercise your fundamental human right to pound something of yours, procreation is neither goal nor possibity.”

And for the life of me, I can not understand what that second response from person A is supposed to mean! Any takers?

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

A logical solution would be to sterilise males at birth, much as we do with herds of cattle. This reduces fighting among the males, and reduces unwanted pregnancies. Males could then have the sterilisation reversed at the age of 24 or older, upon passing a basic criminal background check, along with a test of practical skills and financial fitness.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I am disappointed with the intelligence of most of these posts in a respected paper as Reuters.

The posts should be more about bettering civilization without innuendos of degradation, and that capitalism provides for the betterment of individuals in a civilized democratic society.

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Well, I guess that would explain it, although nothing persons A or B said would seem to imply only a hooker would sleep person B, or even person A’s belief of this. I think you maybe reading something else into this. Anyone else want to give it a try? Or do you also see an “apparent” hooker connection?

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

I didn’t read a reference to hookers in the exchange between Persons A and B. Some sort of fantasy, I think.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

I agree. AlkalineState, do you see an apparent reference to hookers in that exchange?

Posted by RexMax46 | Report as abusive

I think the though line of the author is both correct, and humane, but the solutions she offers are merely “Band-Aids” to symptoms of a larger problem.

And I agree with commenter above that the comments on this article are not what I’ve come to expect from Reuters. Sarcasm is one thing, links from Drudge and other MSM sites draw flies, but this is different. Our regular commenters should try and …be nice?

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@Rex: The discussion between persons A and B appeared more to involve congress. Self-Congress.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Allow me to bring some sanity to this discussion. As in the author’s personal case, the poverty among women is concentrated among SINGLE WOMEN WITH CHILDREN, the majority of whom have few marketable skills and low levels of education.

So, the solution is not exclusively in the domain of government assistance, but in the teaching that having children is a lifetime (at the minimum 18 years) commitment and that any woman, especially those without a husband should understand that.

The fact that female poverty is further concentrated among Blacks and Hispanics (as a group the least educated, and with out of wedlock birth rates of 70% and 50% respectively) illustrates that the child welfare programs are failing. Out of wedlock birth rates since the 1970′s (and full deployment of Johnson’s War on Poverty) among all racial categories have increased dramatically over the years–especially among women who were on the fringes of poverty as children. It’s a cycle–no two ways about it.

Therefore, many of you are focused on the effect and not looking at the cause which comes down to the personal responsibility of the woman herself. The feminist generation demands “control over their bodies”–and I say they have always had total control. But when they make a decision (that only they can make) that results in pregnancy and the birth of a child, they need to step up to the longer term issues and responsibilities. Surely they want and have control, but then they want government (you and me) to subsidize that decision.

They want control… to condemn themselves to poverty OR to make a more responsible decision that dramatically decreases the odds of a life in poverty.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@COindependent: Your ‘sanity to the discussion’ amounted to blaming young women for the dead-beat men who impregnate them and then disappear. We can argue about what it means for a 15-year-old girl to ‘decide’ to have sex, but I doubt we’ll see eye to eye on that. Bottom line, it’s the horny boys pushing it 9 times out of 10, and where are those horny boys 9 months later?

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

@Alki That is not what I said. What I said was “a women has a choice”. I did not give a pass to the biological male contributor–only the fact that it takes two to tango. If a women understands the potential impacts, she might be more inclined to not get into that situation. Perhaps, just saying “no” would change the dynamic.

Your exception re the 15 year old does not diminish my point. You’re right, the boys are just as responsible, but remember the progressives do not want anything regarding morality (or responsibility) taught in the schools–mainly because it would be “imposing values”. Been there, repeatedly. So we diminish religion in the public arena, which diminishes morals, then folks like you promote individual control of one’s body. It’s the moral component that distinguishes us from livestock–but we cannot teach that. Rather, we teach the kids about anal and oral sex in our elementary schools. Nice.

I do not have any use for deadbeat biological fathers. Just look at the professional athletes with kids scattered from one end of the country to the other. I trust it would be less likely to happen if these women were not so willing to make themselves available. That’s the control over their bodies they should be exercising.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive