Women and Children in Poverty

By Diana Pearce

Vol. 8, No. 1, 1986 pp. 1-2, 16-20

Two out of three adults in poverty today are women. Three-fourths of America's more than 34 million poor consist of women and their children. Over half of children in poverty live in women-maintained families.

We truly have a new poverty problem, a new kind of poor. It is not just that the demographics have changed. The very nature of poverty has changed. And that calls for a change in the nature of the solutions. We should not just reinstitute the New Deal and the War on Poverty, for they were not intended to deal with women's poverty.

The femininization of poverty means that in the last two decades women-headed families have increased from thirty-six to fifty percent of all poor families. There are now more than three and a half million families maintained by women alone whose income is below the poverty level.

Although women are poor for some of the same reasons that men are poor-because they're in high unemployment areas, because of racial discrimination, and because of physical handicaps, there are two characteristics of women's poverty that distinguish it from the poverty experienced by men: children and labor market discrimination.

First, women often have the economic as well as the emotional burden of child rearing. Most people are aware that the rise in the divorce rate and the increase in the number of children born out of wedlock has increased the number of single-parent families, primarily woman-headed


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families. When a family with children breaks up, or when children are born to an unmarried couple, the man frequently becomes, or remains, single and the women becomes a single parent.

The circumstances of a woman alone in America, struggling to maintain a household, is highly correlated with poverty. The current system of child support in this country is a disgrace. Forty-three percent of children who have absent parents--usually absent fathers--get child support. Only half of these children receive the full amount awarded. The average child support awarded is $2,100 a year per family, not per child--that's less than ten percent of the median income.

More disgraceful is our lack of public support for children who are without sufficient income from either parent. I've compared the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) support rates to the support standard for foster children-a good standard to use because that is what the state determines it costs to take care of a child. Nationwide in ]974, foster parents received three times as much as the natural, single parent mother (receiving AFDC) to take care of a child. In 1982, the ratio was four-to-one. That is, if you go from two children to three children, the average increase in AFDC payments in 1982 was forty-nine dollars a month Compare that with the the average state payment for a foster child: almost two-hundred dollars a month. In some states the ratio is seven or eight to one.

Some mothers living in poverty have come to feel that the best way they can provide for their children is to give them up to foster care. Because the foster mother can get at least four times as much money as the natural mother to provide food, clothing and shelter, and sometimes more, the children would be better off, at least materially.

The other distinctive characteristic of women's poverty is the disadvantage that women experience in the labor market. This is the familiar "fifty-nine-cents-on-a-dollar," and the fact that women college graduates still earn less than men who are high school dropouts. Those figures however, only compare men and women who work full-time, year-round.

Only forty-eight percent of women workers work full-time, year-round. The majority of women workers only manage to get part-time or part-year work, or both. Women find themselves unable to get full-time jobs. Only thirty-eight percent of women who maintain households alone are able to get full-time year-round work. Their wages are even less than the fifty-nine cents on a dollar--considerably less if they are minority women.

Women disproportionately fill jobs that are set up to be part-time. These jobs are in the most rapidly expanding industries. Employers deliberately create these jobs as part-time so that they don't have to provide fringe benefits or sick leave. Sometimes people don't even get breaks or lunch hours. They don't get paid vacation. They don't get paid holidays. They don't get many of things that the full-time worker gets. Women are bearing the brunt of the expansion of part-time jobs and are being kept poor because of it.

Many women work at the minimum wage--eighteen percent compared to eight percent of men. Even if you work full-time, year-round, at a minimum wage job you do not earn enough to support yourself and one child above the poverty level for a two-person family.

The minimum wage, until 1981, had remained pretty close to the poverty line for a family of three. But today if you are a minimum wage worker, you have to work fifty hours a week to support yourself and two children at the poverty level. Deductions for social security add another three or four hours. Pretty soon you're working seven days a week. The minimum wage is no longer a living wage. And women are disproportionately minimum wage workers.

So we have the two sources of women's poverty: poverty from children, poverty from disadvantage in the labor market. We have a welfare sytem, however that was designed not for the problems of poor women, but for the problems of poor men. I call that system a Dual Welfare


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System, for our welfare programs can be grouped into two very different groups, a primary sector and a secondary sector.

Most of the resources spent by the welfare system are devoted to programs in the primary sector that are geared to one's being, or having been, a full-time, year-round, worker: programs such as unemployment compensation, social security, worker's compensation. These are relatively generous.

When unemployment compensation was established, the rhetoric used then spoke of "regular workers" versus "casual workers." Unemployment insurance was set up to protect workers who had worked full-time for a number of years, and then were laid off through no fault of their own. But, as we have seen, women workers don't fit this "regular worker" model. Many women work part-time. They don't make the minimum earnings or the minimum hours to qualify for unemployment compensation.

Women often leave employment for reasons that don't have to do with their competence on the job. Sometimes they leave because they cannot fulfill their domestic obligations and work their job. What happens, for example, if an employer shifts an employee who is also a single, working mother from a day to a night shift? What if she cannot arrange for nighttime child care and is, as a result, forced to leave her job? The law says that's her fault, not the employer's. The result is that she can't get unemployment compensation.

In many states, if you leave work voluntarily because you have been sexually harassed by your employer you can't get unemployment compensation.

Disproportionately, because women do not fit the Male Worker (regular worker) Model of unemployment compensation, or of other welfare programs that provide support or give access to job training programs, they have to turn to the secondary welfare system.

The secondary welfare system contains the "means-tested" programs that are stigmatizing, penurious in benefits and that push women back into employment as quickly as they can, no matter how inappropriate or how insecure the jobs are. These secondary welfare sector programs are built upon what I call the Male Pauper Model.

The Male Pauper Model grew from the English Poor Laws, and from the nineteenth century work houses. In this model, poor people are viewed as able-bodied persons who are just lazy and need to be forced to go to work. Benefits are set so low that anybody who possibly can work will be pressed into the labor market as quickly as possible. If neccessary they are forced through compulsory programs we now call "workfare."

Thus, the US welfare system now consists of a primary set of programs that women find themselves ineligble for and a secondary set of programs that women find demeaning, impoverishing and that push them into competition for low-skilled, low-paid employment.

By the way, ninety percent of women presently on welfare have worked. Before the Reagan budget cuts, many poor women worked while they were also on welfare. That's very difficult to do now because you are allowed to earn so little before you are forced off welfare.

What about job training programs in the secondary welfare system? We have two major ones: WIN (Work Incentive Program) and to some extent JTPA dote Training Partnership Act).

Each of these programs are so small as to be considered tokenism. They essentially ration jobs. But women do enter into them. Women constitute fifty percent of the people who take JTPA training programs. Yet, even here, they are shunted into the programs that pay the least. For example, JTPA on-the job work experiences which offer non-paying job training is sixty-two percent female. Paid on-the-job training is fifty-eight percent male. When it comes to wages, women too get shortshrift; their average wage of $4.20 an hour (remember, this is the secondary sector) is eighty-five percent of the wages received by men graduating from the same program, and on a full-time basis puts their income at about the poverty level for a three-person family.


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Women are forced into a cycle of alternating between very poor jobs and going on welfare. As soon as a job ends, women find they're not eligble for unemployment compensation. They didn't earn enough money or they didn't work long enough--so they go back on welfare. Once on welfare they're forced through the programs and are sent back out into a poor job again. Never getting anywhere. Never getting to the point where they have enough job training skills, enough work experience to get out of poverty in any permanent way.

We have a gender-differentiated way of thinking about welfare programs. We think about "income support" for women and children. We talk about "jobs" and "job training" and "equal opportunity" for men. The reality is that everybody is expected to--and must, work. By talking about work and welfare in this gender differentiated way, and yet forcing women into unequally-paid work, women's poverty is perpetuated and institutionalized.

There's been some talk about re-instituting programs from the 1960s' War on Poverty. Think carefully back to all those programs. They analyzed and concentrated on relieving poverty among the "able-bodied." Basically, they were intended to help men, black as well as white. And they did. Particularly young men.

As it was originally written, the Job Corps legislation excluded young women. It was amended so that they could participate, but it was not intended for them and did not have much effect on them. The same thing is true for many of the programs that are under discussion now. They do not address the nature or needs of women in poverty.

Among our most successful programs during the 1970's in reducing poverty were those for the elderly. We asked, "What is the nature of poverty among the aged?" One of the problems was fixed incomes, so we indexed Social Security. A second problem was medical expenses. As people get older, their health problems increase, but there was no way they could increase their income to deal with rising medical expenses. So we created the Medicare program. It has never been adequate, and the Reagan Administration has cut it back, but we created a program that dealt with the problem.

A third problem was housing. We said, "A lot of people who aren't able to buy a house are finding themselves without housing when they are older." So we created subsidized housing for the elderly. With these and other programs we substantially reduced poverty among the aged.

Now, we have to do the same thing with regard to pov-


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erty among women. We have to ask, "What is the nature of women's poverty?" Then we have to devise and develop programs that meet the nature of that poverty. I'm going to suggest six principles that I think should guide us as we develop an agenda for women's poverty.

The first one is: dual systems are inherently unequal. Services for poor people alone tend to be poor services. We need universal programs. We need universal income support programs. We need universal health care programs.

There is, for example, a great deal of talk about people who are uninsured for health care. Do you know what is being proposed? That for middle class people we develop health insurance programs, and for poor people we develop charity hospitals. Hospitals and doctors will be given a pot of money to dole out health care-on their terms-to the poor. That is the wrong way to do it. Dual systems are inherently unequal.

They will always end up being poor services for poor people. We need a non-stigmatizing, universal, system. And there are many ways to pay for it out of the tax system.

Second principle: while programs need to be universal in terms of application, they need to be targeted at specific needs of the poor. Instead of providing a few subsidized child care spaces for a few people, we need universal child care system, much like our public education system. Women-maintained families, especially, need child care.

We emphatically don't need employer-controlled child care. We've had enough experience with company doctors and company stores to know what happens when you have services in control of the same people whose primary motives is profit.

We need programs that address the specific labor market disadvantages faced by women workers as women. We need job training programs that prepare women for non-traditional jobs. We need to prepare women for sexual harassment and sex discrimination so that they know how to handle these situations. Almost no job training provides that unless they're ones run by women's organizations.

The third principle is that we need to get rid of the destructive dual system rhetoric when we talk about social welfare programs. We make false judgments and distinctions between dependent and independent. I don't know any "rugged individualist" who is not socially dependent.

Another false distinction for most women workers is that of being "at work" and "being at home". Most women know that such dual rhetoric is destructive of self-esteem and that it doesn't make any sense for their lives. There's work for pay and there's work at home.

The fourth principle insists that we need to develop programs that value the work that women do. If a young man gives two or three years to serve in the US armed forces, he is rewarded in many ways. He receives education benefits, health care benefits for the rest of his life, and burial benefits. He is given social esteem.

If a woman gives one year or a few years to having children, she is castigated and ultimately punished for having interrupted her career. We need to value her gifts of her time-perhaps with Social Security earnings sharings, parental leave, or something like veteran's preference points which would credit women for the time they spent out of the labor force raising children. Women should not be impoverished for making the choice to have children.

Our fifth principle is that we should value children as the precious resources and as the future of this society that they are. Just as no children today should be denied equal access to education or health care because of their race, we need to declare that no children should be denied equal accesss to education, health care, shelter, because of the marital status of their parents.

Sixth, programs should recognize and value--


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equally-different family forms, and not try to solve poverty by imposing one model on all of us. Two parent families-other things being equal-may be preferable. I don't think all the evidence is in, but clearly "other things" aren't always equal. For many families the choice is between a two-parent family which is psychologically and physically abusive of the mother and children, and a single-parent family that is not. Often, even with the great economic costs, a one parent family is preferable.

The problem of joblessness among young black men is a problem that ought to be solved in its own right. If that problem were to be solved, and if the man's wages were to be shared (through marriage or child support), it might contribute to reducing women's poverty, but it is not the solution, or even a major solution to women's poverty.

Now some specifics. We need a universal income support system to recognize women's work as valuable work.

Anybody who wants to work and can work, but can't find work. should have access to income support as an unemployed person. In the United States, about forty percent of the women who are unemployed are either new entrants or reentrants to the labor market. That means they cannot get unemployment insurance, nor access to the various job service and retraining programs that are available to people who are the "insured unemployed." Likewise, unemployment insurance systems in Europe provide for young people who graduate from high school, have never worked, but can't find a job.

In the US, we have a false distinction: a woman with children who receives public assistance is considered to be a "welfare mother.' She is not considered "unemployed", even though ninety percent have worked, and some even work while on welfare. She may be looking for a job to support herself and her family, but she does not have a right to unemployment insurance--an income support program whose benefits are often several times as high as those of welfare programs. This makes a big difference. If you don't have enough resources, you can't do much about solving your problems.

We should have one income support system. One that is not stigmatizing. We should include everybody who is not working and everyone who has a job but whose earnings are inadequate. For example, in some states-but nowhere in the South-we have "short-time compensation." Someone whose full-time job is cut back to half-time can get unemployment insurance coverage for that halftime they are not working.

However, if you are a part-time worker, already working only four hours a day. you're not eligible for the program. '['hat doesn't make any sense. The person who can't get a full-time job is usually in as much, if not more, need than the person who has been cut fron1 full-time to part-time hours.

We need anti-discrimination-against-women provisions in our job training programs. Currently, if you run a job training program. You're rewarded for how many people you place in jobs. A white man comes in and needs only two weeks of training to get a job. A woman comes and needs child care, remedial math (she dropped out of high school), and more time and experience to get a job. That takes more resources. The job training program which opens itself fully to women's needs is going to be castigated for not getting as many people jobs as another program which is more concerned with mere body counts-that's called "creaming". And it's been a characteristic of job programs since they started.

Why not reward programs for placing people according to how difficult they are to place?

We need to raise and index the minimum wage. The minimum wage was intended to be a minimum living wage. We should restore that commitment. We have not raised the minimum wage since 1981.

We need to create more jobs both in the private and public sectors. We have a system where we subsidize capital, where there are real incentives for an employer to add a machine to increase his capital investments. (It's not for nothing our system is called capitalist.) We need incentives for employers who want to expand production-not to add a machine or to add overtime hours for present workers-to give them an incentive to hire new workers.

If everybody who is working today worked only forty hours, had just one job and no overtime, and if we took those overtime hours and hired new workers-and did so by public policy that would subsidize it in the employer's interest-we would create enough new jobs for every person who is now unemployed. The jobs are there, but not available to those who need them.

And, we should create new jobs. We started to do this under CETA and then cut back. There are a lot of services we need. We need educational excellence. We need teacher's aides. We need library aides. We need social workers. We need child care. We need a lot of services for a better society.

We should have universal fringe benefits. We need to make sure that all jobs provide not only the minimum income, which is what raising and indexing the minimum wage would do, but minimum security against income loss due to health crisis, unemployment, disabilty, and so on.

We need a system of universal health insurance.

We need to make sure that unemployment insurance covers everybody who is a worker. We need to make sure that disabilty covers everybody who is a worker, including women during pregnancy.

We need decent housing. The absence of shelter is becom-


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ing an increasing crisis for women and their children-the hidden homeless. You don't see women and their children on the streets nearly as much as you see homeless men. But if you look at the lists for public housing, people who have been found eligible and are waiting, you will see that we have a crisis of shelter for women and children. This crisis is exacerbated by increasing discrimination in the private market against families with children. Twenty-five percent of rental units across the country exclude chidren altogther. Another fifty percent restrict them-only two children, no children over eight, no children under six, and so forth. In some cities, eighty percent of the new rental housing excludes children.

This trend is growing. Gentrification and the building of condiminiums are further reducing the supply of moderate income housing. In public housing, we've cut back on rent subsidies. We've cut back on construction. Congresswoman Pat Schroeder (D-Colorado) estimates that there are now three million single parent families that are doubling up.

How do we get from where we are to where we want to go?

First, we have to use our imagination and out of our experience devise and revise programs that will work. This means the development of programs at the local level as models for national programs and the changing of national programs--such as income support programs. We need to rethink from the ground up.

But, I don't think we're going to get simply because of good ideas, or obvious next steps. We have to organize and make demands. We must push for the election of people who realize we have a crisis and who are willing to work on these issues. And frankly, I think that means we need more women to raise the issues and concerns of the new poor.

Diana Pearce is Director (and founder) of the Women and Poverty Project, and visiting professor of Sociology at American University in Washington, DC. She has written and spoken widely on poverty issues, and coined the phrase the "feminization of poverty" in 1978. She has also researched housing discrimination and school desegregation, including serving as an expert witness in the Yonkers (NY) Ouachita Parish (Monroe, LA) cases.