It was 1978 when Dr. Diana Pearce, who is currently the director of the University of Washington’s Center for Women’s Welfare, coined the phrase “the feminization of poverty” in a famous essay that still reverberates nearly 40 years later.
In this essay, titled “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work and Welfare,” Pearce writes “Poverty is rapidly becoming a female problem. Though many women have achieved economic independence from their spouses by their participation in the labor force (and in some cases, by divorce), for many the price of that independence has been their pauperization and dependence on welfare.”
Pearce’s research focused on the struggles of American women. However, today the term “feminization of poverty” is used to document the fact that women all over the world are disproportionately affected by poverty and a myriad of related social and cultural issues, not to mention disparate health, education, and employment outcomes.
The debate that Pearce helped to nurture around the issues of women and poverty, particularly in America, proved extremely controversial at the time and remains so to this day. Critics on either side of the argument have long cited a multitude of factors that they believe contribute to this phenomenon.
Regardless of what side one might come down on in this particular discussion, it is clear that in the 1970s, American women (and their children) began to increasingly suffer from the effects of poverty. It seems as though not much has changed in 2016 and women that are currently classified as poor are more likely to live the rest of their lives in poverty. Furthermore, women that do not live in poverty during their working years are significantly more likely than men to become poor following retirement.
This past July, Minnesota Public Radio picked up an Associated Press story about a report that demonstrated women are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty when they reach the age of 65. The report, which was conducted by the National Institute of Retirement Security, further notes that “women age 75 to 79 are three times more likely” to live in poverty as compared to men.
Among the factors cited by the National Institute of Retirement Security for these inequities are:
- the wage gap between men and women.
- an increase in the number of female-headed households.
- longer life expectancy for women.
- women’s role as caregivers not only for their children but aging and ailing members of their families as well.
In Minnesota, it would seem as though the overall poverty gap between women and men is not that significant. For example, Minnesota Compass reports that in 2014, the poverty rate among women in Minnesota is 12.4 percent as compared to 10.5 percent for men. Data also shows the overall trend in poverty between genders has remained stable as there has been an approximately two percent gap dating back to 1989. The same holds true for the Twin Cities metro where the poverty rate among women is currently 11.8 percent compared to 10.1 percent for men.
Although Minnesota seems to fare better than most states in this regard, there are still a number of shortcomings where the economic wherewithal of women is far less than that of men. In its recent study, “The Status of Women and Girls in Minnesota,” the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota cites the persistent wage gap and illustrates that “Women remain clustered in low-wage work, representing two-thirds of those in the state earning at or below the minimum wage and continuing to be the majority of those living below the poverty line.” This report also highlights gender inequity when it comes to paid leave policies, support for childcare, and other critical work/life balance issues that tend to be more detrimental to women.
In referring back to the report from the National Institute on Retirement Security, Minnesota also has a great deal of work to do when it comes to the welfare of elderly women. Minnesota Compass reports that the median income gap between male and female headed households in the Twin Cities is nearly $24,000 per year.
Of course, none of these figures account for the alarming racial disparities that exist in both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. So again, despite the relative strength of women in Minnesota when compared to women in other states, there is still a great deal of work to be done to establish true gender equity, to say nothing of racial equality.
Clarence Hightower is the Executive Director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.
Dr. Clarence Hightower is a visionary leader with more than 37 years of nonprofit
experience in the Twin Cities. He is the current executive director of the Community Action
Partnership of Hennepin County, one of the largest anti-poverty organizations in the area and the state’s largest Energy Assistance program. He welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.