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Diana Pearce (1978) coined the term ”feminization of poverty” in the late 1970s to describe the increasing overrepresentation of women and children among the poor in the United States. Since then the gender gap in poverty has increased, although some evidence suggests that improvements in women’s earnings are beginning to close the poverty gap between women and men. Of householders, 12.4 percent of men are living in poverty compared with 18.9 percent of women (US Census Bureau, 2008). The disparity is sharper for African Americans: 20.2 percent of householder men live in poverty, compared to 35 percent of householder women (US Census Bureau 2008). However, the economic disadvantage of women is not a uniquely US experience, and scholarship in recent years highlights the need for a more global perspective on the feminization of poverty.
As Pearce (1978) noted in her now classic article, explanations for the feminization of poverty in the United States center on work and welfare. Currently, full-time women workers earn 77 percent of what full-time men workers earn (US Census Bureau, 2008), and the pay gap is attenuated but still holds within educational-level and occupational status. In addition, women are underrepresented among the beneficiaries of the more generous, work-related social insurance benefits, but overrepresented as recipients of public assistance, a far less generous, means-tested program. In short, the dualistic structure of the US social welfare system works against women (Fraser 1993). The ”masculine” social welfare programs are social insurance schemes (unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, SSSI) primarily benefiting men as rights bearers and rewarding productive labor. The ”feminine” social welfare programs (TANF, formerly AFDC, food stamps, Medicaid, public housing assistance) are less generous, have a heavy surveillance component, and devalue reproductive labor. In her analysis of the impact of the economic meltdown on older women, Estes (2009) argues that ageism and sexism have resulted in social policies (namely, Social Security and Medicare) that put older women at risk for high rates of poverty, morbidity and mortality.
A cross-national picture of the feminization of poverty must be segmented into an examination of other Economic North (or industrialized) countries and countries of the Economic South.
Cross-national comparisons with other industrialized countries prove particularly illuminating for understanding potential solutions for the US situation. In short, labor market and social welfare policies together can be significant deterrents to the feminization of poverty. As Goldberg and Kremen (1990: 36) note, ”Cross-national data reinforce the conclusion that one of the world’s wealthiest nations is not generous to single mothers and their children.”
What is the global evidence for the feminization of poverty among Economic South nations? Standardized poverty measures are difficult to obtain, but the United Nations reports issued for the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing) in 1995 indicated that of the 1.3 billion people in poverty, 70 percent are women. The Platform for Action adopted at the conference called for the eradication of the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women. However, according to a 2005 report from the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, since Beijing women’s livelihoods have worsened, with increasing insecure employment and reduced access to social protection and public services. In general, women’s economic contributions are undervalued (to the tune of $11 trillion per year in 1995) and women work longer hours than men, yet share less in the economic rewards.
- Estes, C. (2009) The economic meltdown: older women and the politics of aging. SWS Feminist Activist presentation at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH.
- Fraser, N. (1993) Women, welfare and the politics of need interpretation. In: Richardson, L. & Taylor, V. (eds.), Feminist Frontiers III. McGraw-Hill, New York, pp. 447—58.
- Goldberg, G. S. & Kremen, E. (1990) The Feminization of Poverty: Only in America? Praeger, New York.
- Pearce, D. (1978) The feminization of poverty: women, work, and welfare. Urban and Social Change Review 11: 28—36.
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