Gender Lens on Poverty - Page 4

5.  Inequality, poverty, and gender

Inequality is often seen as a key culprit in the persistence and pervasiveness of U.S. poverty. According to the Economic Policy Institute, inequality has contributed to poverty’s increase by 5.5 percent. Inequality and relative poverty in the U.S. are among the highest in OECD nations.

It is, of course, difficult to think about U.S. poverty in isolation from the country’s wealth. Since the 1920s, the U.S. has been the richest nation in the world. The top 1 percent of U.S. households took 95 percent of the country’s total income gains from 2009 to 2012, capturing a bigger share than during the roaring 1920s, a period also known for an extreme wealth gap. Perhaps unsurprisingly, social mobility has declined as well during the past four decades. As sociologist Erik Olin Wright notes, inequality and poverty are products of social processes because inequality is produced through: 1) the exclusion of certain people from certain labor markets; 2) the exclusion within labor markets between well-paid and poorly-paid workers; and 3) non-market outcomes between the wealthy and non-wealthy.

Some workers are excluded from available jobs because their skill sets do not match the shifts in the labor market. Up until the 1970s –largely due to unions– manufacturing and industrial jobs were plentiful for the low-/mid-educated workforce, and provided pathways to the American Dream and the middle class. However, newly emergent information, technology, and financial services sectors, coupled with the low educational attainment of the general population, has made this once stable class of skills increasingly obsolete. The U.S., slow to address the mismatch between workers’ skill sets and the labor market’s needs, has failed to push for job creation and workforce re-education.

Inequality within the labor market between the well-paid and poorly paid is immense, a problem exacerbated by the polarization of the labor market, with the pay gap between executives and line workers being one well documented example. But not all low- wage workers are treated the same, either. For example, among all the workers at the 20th-percentile level, female workers are significantly more disadvantaged and are paid less than their male counterparts. Moreover, the situation is all the harder for women because occupational segregation means that the sectors they tend to apply for and to be hired within–domestic work, home healthcare, hospitality industry, etc.–are among the lowest paying across all low-skill sectors.


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










Social welfare policies and Washington politics

Broadly, social welfare policies and programs are interventions intended to solve social problems. U.S. welfare history starts essentially from colonial poor laws, which were based on the Elizabethan Poor Law enacted in 1601 by the English Parliament. The Elizabethan Poor Law stipulated three categories of people who deserved public support: (1) the able-bodied poor, (2) the “impotent” poor (that is, “unemployable” poor who are blind, aged, and physically disabled), and (3) children. These notions of poor people’s able-bodiedness and un/employability transferred to various forms of colonial poor laws.

In 1624, the Virginia Colony passed laws that recognized the need to provide services for soldiers and sailors for their “special work” contributions to society, and in 1647 Rhode Island’s first poor law declared the importance of public responsibility to help the “impotent poor” and to employ able-bodied persons. In addition to the emphasis on work, Elizabethan Poor Law championed a focus on local/state-level (not federal) responsibility, and familial and church group support before state intervention. The law also identified the poor as deserving or undeserving, establishing eligibility requirements and breeding a distrust of dependency.

These Elizabethan themes about the poor are apparent in U.S. welfare policies and programs, as well as in the psyche of the general population. Two meta-narratives exist about poor people in the U.S. The “deserving poor” are characterized as physically disabled-bodied, widows (particularly of soldiers and servicemen), children, and others who are imagined as innocent, hard-working people who have become victims of unfortunate circumstances. The faces of the undeserving poor have been those of “welfare queens” driving inappropriately costly vehicles, having too many children, and collecting welfare checks; they are depicted as completely dependent and irresponsible. Further, these faces have been racialized and genderedcoded as the deserving poor, innocent White mothers and the undeserving “welfare queen” Black mothers.

Alejandra Marchevsky and Jeanne Theoharis, in their article on the history of entitlements, posit that the intersections of gendered and racialized poverty, welfare politics, and labor market interests have always been and continue to be linked to the over-representation of women of color in low-wage jobs. Lauded as a highly successful social protection campaign, the New Deal launched Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) under the Social Security Act of 1935. ADC, a precursor to the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was administered unevenly by states, more often benefitting poor White mothers, married or widowed, who were expected to not work. On the other hand, say Marchevsky and Theoharis, because “white politicians feared losing black women's cheap domestic and agricultural labor, black women were deemed largely ineligible for ADC benefits, disqualified during the cotton harvesting season, or intimidated from even applying.”  This was particularly true in southern states.

As such, ADC’s programmatic requirements such as “morality tests,” “suitable work,” “suitable home,” or “employable mother,” have effectively prohibited many African American mothers from applying and staying enrolled in the program. In addition, due to “man-in-the-house” policies that denied services to mothers suspected of receiving help from adult males, social workers conducted midnight-raids to search for adult males, primarily targeting African American families. Other successful social programs that helped solidify the middle class, such as the G.I. Bill and health and pension programs, did not have a significant impact on improving the lives of people of color because of persistent labor and housing discrimination. Practices such as redlining and mortgage discrimination have long hampered the growth of communities of color.

Despite cyclical changes of names for social programs, the basic principles and attitudes towards the poor and safety-net programs embedded in the Elizabethan Poor Law still stand prominently in the discourse of poverty. Commonly known as welfare reform, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 signed by President Clinton –who promised to “end welfare as we have come to know it”– replaced AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), a federal cash assistance program, with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). PRWORA enforced strict work requirements and mandatory time limits, and invested heavily in marriage initiatives. These eligibility changes have been criticized by academics and advocates alike for being detrimental to women and poor families; marriage and fatherhood initiative programs also have been found to be ineffective.


6.  U.S. poverty compared to peer nations

Many studies show the U.S. does not fare well in term of inequality, poverty, and social expenditure compared to other industrialized nations. Its high level of poverty and low level of government spending on social programs have been well documented, as can be seen in this graph produced by the Economic Policy Institute:

Social Expenditure and Relative Poverty Rates in Selected OECD Countries, Late 2000s
(Economic Policy Institute)




The Economic Policy Institute reports that in the late 2000s, the average relative poverty rate among 34 member states of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) was 9.6 percent; the rate in the U.S. in the same timeframe was considerably higher, at 17.3 percent. Denmark (6.1 percent), Iceland (6.4 percent), Slovakia, Netherlands, and France (all 7.2 percent) ranked lowest, while Spain (14 percent), Australia (14.6 percent), and Japan (15.7 percent) ranked closest to the U.S.

In 2009, the average child poverty rate among 26 OECD countries was 9.8 percent; the U.S. ranked highest at 23.1 percent and Iceland was the lowest at 4.7 percent. These rankings reflect the relatively small sums the U.S. spends as a share of its gross domestic product (GDP) on social programs. In 2009, 19.2 percent of the U.S. GDP went to social expenditures, placing it 24th out of 34 OECD countries; the OECD average was 22.1 percent. Even when the U.S. does direct resources to social programs (e.g., tax-and-transfer systems), its success at reducing poverty and inequality tends to be less effective than that of other countries. For example, in the late 2000s, its social programs reduced poverty by 9.7 percent, whereas other countries’ programs did so by as much as 17.4 percent.

The Gini coefficient is a commonly used measure of income inequality within a nation. It ranges between 0 and 1, where a coefficient of 0 means that all households in a country have the same level of wealth (denoting absolute equality), and a coefficient of 1 means that one household has all the country’s wealth (denoting absolute inequality). The Gini coefficient for the U.S. in the early to mid-2000s ranged between 0.42 and 0.57; among 30 OECD countries, the U.S. ranked 4th highest in inequality.

While other nations also struggle with poverty and inequality, a Pew Charitable Trust study shows that poor people in the U.S. fare worse than their counterparts in other industrialized nations primarily because of inadequate social protections, lower social mobility, and more sustained generational poverty.


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