Gender Lens on Poverty - Page 2

3.  Facts about poverty in the U.S.

For the most part, poverty is understood to be a serious problem by academics, policymakers and the general public, and the following facts demonstrate why. (A few scholars have cautioned against raising the alarm too high given that the poor have amenities such as microwaves, air conditioners, cars and cellphones; in the same vein, former Rep. Cynthia Davis (R-MO) argued that “Hunger can be a positive motivator.”)

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty in response to, among other things, a national poverty rate of 19 percent. For the past forty years, the percentage of the American population living in poverty has fluctuated between a low of 11.1 percent in 1973 and a high of 15.2 percent in 1983, based on the official poverty measure.

For the past three years, the national poverty rate has remained at 15 percent despite the recession’s official end. The most recent estimate of 46.5 million people living in poverty was the highest figure in the measure’s history. In 2012, across every age group, women and girls experienced the highest rates of poverty.


Poverty Rate by Gender in 2012
(Census Historical Poverty Tables: Table 7)



In 2012, the poverty rate for families with children under the age of 6 was 24.4 percent (5.8 million households). More than 40 percent of female-headed households with children lived in poverty. The rate was 22.6 percent for male-headed households and 8.9 percent for households headed by married couples.


Poverty Rates Among Female-Headed Households with Children by Race in 2012
(National Women’s Law Center)


While unemployment rates tend to be lower for women, they are more likely to work in low-wage industries and to earn poverty-level wages. For example, approximately 587,000 single mothers who worked full-time lived in poverty. According to one analysis, poverty-wage workers tend to be female, young, and African American or Latina. They also tend to work in retail and leisure/hospitality industries, as sales and services personnel, and are less likely to be unionized.


Unemployment Rate and Working Poor Rate by Gender and Race
(Bureau of Labor Statistics: Unemployment 2013, Working Poor, 2011)


Since 1966, women across all age groups have been more likely to live in poverty. According to an analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), examining the period between 1993 and 2012, the poverty gap between men and women was at the lowest in 2010, not because the women’s rate decreased but because the men’s rate increased. According to a National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) report, communities of color were particularly vulnerable to poverty—rates among Native American women, African American and Latina women over the age of 18 were 34.4 percent, 25.1 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively. In addition, women in all racial/ethnic groups had higher poverty rates than their male counterparts; no group of women had lower rates of poverty than White males, as this chart shows:


Poverty Rates for Adults by Gender and Race/Ethnicity in 2012
(National Women’s Law Center)


Across all age groups, the Center for American Progress (CAP) reported even higher rates: 29 percent of African American women and 28 percent of Latinas lived in poverty. Typically, poverty rates among the elderly are lower than other age groups; however, NWLC finds that there is a growing trend of elderly women living in poverty. In 2012, there were 2.6 million elderly women living in poverty, living on approximately $5,500/year, and among them, 0.7 million lived in extreme poverty. This is an increase of 18 percent from the previous year. Long-term historical studies on the gender poverty gap are rare, but a snapshot examination of the Census data from 1966 and 2012 reveals the persistence of the differential.


Poverty Rate by Gender in 1966 and 2012
(Census Historical Poverty Tables: Table 7)



Under 18

18 - 64

65 and Over





















These statistics exist in the context of facing unprecedented levels of inequality and wages that have not kept pace with economic expansion. This is especially true for low-wage workers, among whom women are overly represented. And, as the American Association of University Women (AAUW) points out, the gender pay gap persists, with woman making 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women of all racial/ethnic groups make less than their male counterparts, and no group of women makes more than White males.


Median Hourly Wage and Unemployment Rate by Race/Ethnicity and Gender in 2012
(Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2013 and Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012)



African American











Median weekly earnings









Unemployment  rate










Political upheaval such as sequestration and the federal shutdown in 2013 disproportionately impacted low-income women (and their children). Not only are many women federal employees, they are also recipients of safety-net programs such as the WIC (or the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children), Head Start, meal services for seniors, unemployment insurance, and housing and homelessness assistance.

The majority of American households are trying to stretch wages (especially the minimum wage) to meet the high costs of housingtransportation, child caremedical care, etc. Single-female households living in poverty are even more squeezed when political decision-making cuts funding for social programs, because they tend to be least able to withstand income fluctuations.
Several media stories in the last year have documented the complex picture of poverty and gender. A mid-year profile in the New Republic portrayed how the lack of affordable, safe child care forces women to risk their children’s lives and safety in order to work. The American Prospect explored the unexplained five-year drop in life expectancy for uneducated, poor White women, first reported in an August 2012 study. The New York Times’ December 2013 series looked at the confluence of generational poverty and homelessness, especially for families of color, through the accrual of the challenges, frustrations and setbacks of an 11-year old girl and her family. A story that emerged recently about a domestic worker employed and drastically underpaid by an Indian diplomat to the U.S. highlighted the vulnerability of women in low-wage jobs, regardless of their employers’ social, professional, or political standing.


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