The term feminization of poverty was first coined by Diana Pierce in 1976 in an attempt to describe the changing demography of the poor in the United States since 1960. Whereas the poverty rate for all families in the United States had declined quite rapidly (from 18.1 percent in 1960 to 9.4 percent in 1976), the number of female-headed households in poverty had dramatically increased (from 1.9 million households to 2.6 million households), and one third of all female-headed households were in poverty. The question became why a disproportionate number of the poor or near-poor (those between 100 percent and 125 percent of the poverty line) were women and their children, and how the demography of the poor had changed so swiftly.
One key explanation for the feminization of poverty in the early 1970s was a change in family structure, particularly in the number of female-headed households created by divorce. The divorce rate steadily climbed from the 1960s until 1979, and in divorces where children were involved, women were more likely to receive custody. Although many of the women were in the labor force, women earned on average about 62 percent of what men earned in the 1970s. This gender gap in income, coupled with the loss of male income, accounts for much of the rapid increase in the number of female-headed households falling into poverty. Although the divorce rate has declined since 1981, data from the 2000 census suggest that there were about 3.2 million female-headed households living in poverty; the poverty rate for female-headed households continued to be disproportionately high, around 25 percent.
At the same time that divorce created more female-headed households, births to unmarried women became more pervasive in the United States. In 1960 about 6 percent of all births were to unmarried couples, but by 1996, over a third of births were to unmarried couples, with the largest increase among black families. While black women are more likely to be unmarried mothers than are white women, the trend of more births to unmarried women is similar across racial and ethnic lines. Black female-headed households are more likely to be in poverty than are white female-headed households. This disparity is related to historical differences in access to good jobs and residential segregation, both resulting in part from racism and discrimination.
The feminization of poverty is not solely the experience of single women and their children. The elderly compose a nontrivial proportion of the poor or near-poor, with elderly women disproportionately represented. Although the poverty rate among the elderly has been declining as a result of federal programs such as Social Security and Medicare, elderly women do not accrue the same benefits as do elderly men, especially if those women are divorced and did not remarry. On average, women born before 1930 have limited work histories, thus having contributed little to Social Security and having less access to pension benefits. Widowed women could expect access to their husbands’ benefits; divorced women could not. Longer life expectancy among women, as well as an increased desire to live independently, place elderly women at a greater risk of living at or near the poverty line.
The U.S. government implemented many policies with the goal of reducing poverty, some of which were targeted toward women and children. Early means-tested welfare policies, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), provided cash transfers to low-income mothers caring for their children that could be used for housing, food, or other expenses. Temporary Assistance to Needy Families replaced AFDC in 1997, but the goal of the program is generally the same: to provide temporary aid to families caring for children as the caretakers search for employment, acquire additional skills, and more generally, work to move out of poverty. Medicaid is a means-tested program that provides access to medical care for the poor. Comprehensive child support enforcement legislation has been implemented by the federal government as well as in many states. This legislation works to ensure that children who deserve financial support from a nonresidential parent have access to that support, with the goal of reducing the need for support from the federal (and state) government. As noted earlier, Social Security benefits and Medicare are governmental programs that have helped elderly women move out of poverty.
As women and children continue to be disproportionately represented among the poor, social scientists have suggested other policies and policy reforms that target the proximate causes of poverty. Policies that encourage a strong and growing economy that includes well-paying jobs with benefits will help reduce poverty overall, not just among women and children. Low-cost, high-quality child care would allow women to work while providing safe caregiving environments for children. Policies encouraging the building of affordable housing, offering affordable health care, and providing access to education and skills training will also work to stem the tide of families moving into poverty.
- Casper, Lynne M., Sara S. McLanahan, and Irwin Garfinkel. 1994. “The Gender-Poverty Gap: What We Can Learn from Other Countries.” American Sociological Review 59:594-605.
- Christopher, Karen, Paula England, Sara McLanahan, Katherine Ross, and Tim Smeeding. 2001. “Gender Inequality in Poverty in Affluent Nations: The Role of Single Motherhood and the State.” Pp. 199-220 in Child Well-being, Child Poverty and Child Policy in Modern Nations, edited by K. Vleminckx and T. Smeeding. London: Policy Press.
- McLanahan, Sara S. and Erin L. Kelly. 1999. “The Feminization of Poverty: Past and Future.” Pp. 127-45 in Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, edited by J. Chafetz. New York: Plenum.
- Tomaskovic-Devey, Donald, ed. 1988. Poverty and Social Welfare in the United States. Boulder, CO: Westview.
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