Gender Lens on Poverty Primer
- Measuring poverty
- Facts about gender and poverty in the U.S.
- What causes poverty?
- Inequality, poverty, and gender
- U.S. poverty compared to peer nations
- What works: Strategies that relieve poverty
The scope of issues confronting women living in poverty is broad and complex. Women remain the demographic with the highest percentage of poverty after children: 14.5 percent of women and 22 percent of children are poor. Studies suggest poverty among women could be worsening; in 2012, the percentage of elderly women in extreme poverty increased by 18 percent. Moreover, women at all income levels are typically caregivers to the generations before and after them, exacerbating the burdens of their poverty.
The lives of women in poverty are precarious. Women in poverty are more vulnerable to violence, unfair labor and housing practices, discriminatory pricing, and danger at work and at home. Increasingly, women’s ability to move out of poverty is compromised by limited access to a livable wage, affordable housing, healthcare, child care, paid sick leave, education, and training. Whether unemployed, partially employed, or working full-time, women in poverty contend with invasive institutions, from social service agencies to child welfare agencies to the criminal justice system. The choices of women in poverty often present equally disadvantageous options: caring for a sick child can cost a job; buying food can prevent a utility bill from being paid; avoiding a shelter can mean overcrowding a relative’s home. Women in poverty also experience more negative health consequences, including hunger, chronic disease, untreated health conditions, and mental health issues.
This primer is a composite snapshot of extreme to near poverty in the U.S. today and the special challenges it poses for women. Compiling the research of leading scholars and policy thinkers, the primer highlights the realities and (non-) choices available to women living in poverty. Asking questions about poverty necessarily raises questions about inequality—of income, access, and power, so we also look at macro-level policy contributing to greater economic insecurity and inequality. In addition, the primer compares U.S. poverty to that of its peer nations, and offers recommendations on what policies can alleviate (if not eradicate) poverty.
Academics and policy advocates use varying measures and definitions to discuss and analyze poverty. There remains some standardization in the field of poverty research, including terms to denote its different levels, such as extreme, deep, near, or twice-. This short glossary defines the main three tools of poverty measurements, and introduces the most common categories.
Measures of poverty
The method for establishing who is poor in the U.S.—the parameter of the so-called Poverty Threshold—is anachronistic. Not only is this measure over 50 years old, it is based on a 1955 Department of Agriculture report that estimated the average family used approximately one-third of its income on food. In 1963-1964, Mollie Orshansky, an economist with the Social Security Administration, helped establish the federal official poverty threshold by creating a minimum food consumption basket, the cost of which is multiplied by three. The resulting amount is understood to be the least amount of income a household needs to purchase basic goods. A household is officially considered poor if its income before taxes falls below this threshold, which is updated annually to reflect inflation and family size.
The reality is that in 2013, families spend about one-seventh of their budgets on food, with larger allocations going to transportation, healthcare, child care, etc. Advocates believe this calculation underestimates poverty by not accurately reflecting expenses today’s households must meet. The measure also does not account for geographic variations.
In 2012, the official poverty rate for the population was 15 percent. If a family of four with two children under 18 made less than $23,283/year (or $11,720/year for a single-person family), that household was counted as poor.
The supplemental poverty measure (SPM) was launched in 2011 in response to the limits of the official poverty measurement. To better reflect the current economy and household expenses, the SPM includes adjustments to a family’s income and expenses before making its final calculation. Thus, when households receive tax, housing, and other government subsidies (e.g., through the Earned Income Tax Credit or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), these supplements are added to their overall household income. At the same time, households' expenses—such as child care, work-related transportation and medical care—are added to their estimated costs of living. SPM thresholds are also sensitive to the difference in housing costs based on location. In 2012, the SPM poverty rate for the entire population was 16 percent. Because SPM includes subsidies that largely benefit families with children, poverty rates for children tend to be lower when using the SPM instead of the official poverty line; conversely, the rates for the elderly tend to be higher.
Although not used as commonly in the U.S. as the first two measures, relative poverty is a measure used internationally to reflect how people are faring relative to others living in their country. A commonly used relative poverty threshold is set at 50 percent of the national average income. In the late 2000s, the U.S. relative poverty rate was 17 percent (the OECD average was 9.6 percent); that is, approximately 17 percent of the population had income at less than half of the national median level.
Categories of poverty
- Extreme poverty: A term predominantly used in international development literature, the World Bank defines extreme poverty as surviving on less than $1.25/day per person (2005 US dollars). A group of U.S. researchers at the National Poverty Center modified the definition to surviving on less than $2/day per person and identified the incidence of U.S. families living at or below this level. Between 1996 and 2011, they found that the number of families living on $2 or less per person, per day (i.e., $60 or less/month per person) increased from 636,000 to 1.65 million. The study also found that women, compared to 36.5 percent headed by married couples, headed 50.8 percent of households living in extreme poverty in 2011.
- Deep poverty: Deep poverty is defined as income below half of the official poverty line. In 2010, the deep poverty threshold for a family of four was $11,057. In 2012, 20.4 million individuals (6.6 percent of the population) were in deep poverty, including 15 million women and children. Close to 10 percent of children under age 8 lived in deep poverty that year. According to another estimate, approximately 44 percent of the poor population was living in deep poverty.
- Near poverty: There is no true consensus among organizations and researchers about how to define this term. One commonly used definition is to calculate income level up to 1.5 times the official poverty line. One estimate using this method put the near poverty rate at 9.8 percent in 2011. Not considered officially poor by federal standards, the near poor are highly vulnerable economically and have difficulties paying for basic expenses such as housing, food, and health care, but often do not qualify for government subsidies.
- Twice-poverty: Twice-poverty is defined as the income level at double the official poverty line. In 2010, the twice-poverty threshold for a family of four was $44,628. According to one estimate, the twice-poverty rate was 34.4 percent in 2011.
- Generational poverty: Generational poverty is used to describe families that have been living in poverty for at least two generations. Generational poverty is often juxtaposed to situational poverty, which is usually characterized as sudden and temporary in nature.
- Working poor: The working poor are defined as individuals who are part of the labor force (working full- or part-time or looking for work) for at least 27 weeks in a year, but whose incomes fall below the official poverty line. In 2011, 7 percent of the labor force was considered working poor.