Feminization of Poverty? Living Conditions of Women in the United States

Thesis (M.A.), 2005
125 Pages, Grade: 1,0



List of Abbreviations

List of Tables and Figures

I. Introduction

II. Teacher’s Handbook
1 Trends in Poverty Rates
1.1 General Facts about Poverty
1.2 Group Specific Poverty Rates
2 Defining the Terms
2.1 Poverty
2.2 Taking the Measure
2.3 The Feminization of Poverty
3 The Feminization of Poverty: Its Nature and its Causes
3.1 Changes in Economy
3.2 Changes in Social Structures
3.3 “Color Line” Black vs. White – Some Explanations
3.4 Reviewing the Feminization of Poverty
4 The Role of the Welfare State
4.1 Single-Mother Families and the Social Welfare Response
4.2 The United States – A Welfare State Laggard
5 Conclusion

III. A Teaching Model
6 Preface
6.1 Target Group
6.2 Educational Goals
7 A Historical Approach
8 Living in Poverty
8.1 The Definition and Nature of Poverty
8.2 A Musical Approach
8.3 Poor Women’s Living Conditions
9 The American Welfare Response
9.1 The 1996 Welfare Reform
9.2 The Welfare Reform and its Outcomes
9.3 Two Women, Two Responses to Change

IV. Bibliography

V. Appendix

VI. Deutsche Zusammenfassung

List of Abbreviations

illustration not visible in this excerpt

List of Tables and Figures

Table 1 Major Legislation Changes in the AFDC Program

Table 2 Comparison of AFDC and TANF47

Figure 1 Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2003

Figure 2 Poor Families Headed by Women: 1959 to 2003

Figure 3 Families in Poverty by Type of Family: 1959 to 2003

Figure 4 Mind Map on Welfare Reform


No. 1 Limousine in New York

No. 2 Ghetto in New York86

No. 3 Cartoon A.103

No. 4 Cartoon B..103

I. Introduction

No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of conditions.

(Alexis de Tocqueville)[1]

With this statement, the European aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who came to the U.S. in 1831, took up one of America’s well-known founding myths: that of equality. The view of America as the land of unlimited opportunities and equal chances, where everybody can try his luck and pursue his own happiness, is still widespread today – inside as well as outside of America.

The paradox with this myth is that today, the USA is the Western nation with the greatest percentage of the world’s rich and with the widest gap between rich and poor. A closer look into the statistics reveals that certain groups and minorities seem to be more disadvantaged than others since they are stronger represented among the poor. This fact seriously calls into question the image of America as the country of equal living conditions.

Nevertheless, most Americans strongly trust in their equal opportunities for economic advancement: 72% believe in their own chance to raise their living standard – a share that is disproportionately higher than in other countries. In Germany, for example, only 41% of the interviewees estimate their opportunities in such an optimistic way (cf. Rode 1992: 192).

This picture of the United States is also often predominant in the minds of adult learners of English as a foreign language. My intention with this paper is to show them the “other America”, that one far away from the rags-to-riches stories told in numerous Hollywood films. The other America shows high and persistent poverty rates for certain population groups and minorities. During my preliminary reading, I repeatedly came across the term Feminization of Poverty. I wondered what this term exactly embraces, how this phenomenon can emerge in one of the richest industrialized Western nations and why the U.S. government is not able– or not willing - to counter effectively to that phenomenon. As, in my opinion, the issue of the Feminization of Poverty in the United States needs further explanation to understand its complex nature and with it, some particularities of the American society, I decided to dedicate my thesis to poor women and their living conditions in the United States.

This paper is divided into two parts: the first section is the teacher’s handbook, which provides the teacher with the necessary basic and background knowledge about poverty in the United States, about its group specific appearance and especially about the nature and the causes of the Feminization of Poverty. The changes in the American economy, the changes in social structures and the change of the role of women in the American society which occurred during the past half century are traced back to paint the whole picture. Added to this, I examine especially the case for black women as they seem to be affected disproportionately by the Feminization of Poverty. The subsequent chapter of the explanatory part looks at the role of the welfare state in respect of poor women’s living conditions. The main safety-net programs for single-mother families and their effectiveness to lift these families out of poverty as well as changes in welfare policy are part of this chapter. Last but not least, reasons are given why America lags behind other major Western welfare states, especially in helping poor single mothers and their children to escape from poverty.

The second part, the teaching model, is a proposition on how the theoretical part can be put into practice. A choice of different documents and classroom activities are given to draw the students’ attention to the ‘other America’ and to sentize them to what it means to live in poverty, particularly for single mothers and their children. The 1996 Welfare reform, its changes and its results will also be treated.

The teacher’s handbook consists of three main parts which can be combined as and when required, depending on how much time is at the teacher’s disposal and how elaborated the topic shall be treated.

The texts, the pictures and the excerpts are taken from school books and newspapers as well as from academic publications. Furthermore, I chose a song and two cartoons that I found on the Internet. The main part of the teacher’s handbook contains instructions and guidelines for the teacher. The documents such as the texts, the cartoons, the lyrics and the worksheet are attached in the appendix. Regarding the unknown vocabulary, definitions in English are given on the basis of the Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture.

The primary goal of the teaching concept is to give the learners of the foreign language an insights into the culture and civilisation of the country where the language is spoken. As a consequence, the main focus is put on cultural learning rather than language learning (i.e., grammar, style, etc.). Stereotypes – especially that of America as the country of abundant opportunities – shall be left behind in the end of the course since “one of the benefits of a good modern languages course is that it enables learners to stand back from their preconceptions as well as to learn about another way of life (cf. Byram et al.1994: 37).

II. Teacher’s Handbook

1 Trends in Poverty Rates

1.1 General Facts about Poverty

The United States of America is a very wealthy country, but nevertheless social problems and cultural contradictions are blatant. A short walk through one of the bigger cities reveals it: poverty and wealth, racial and ethnic inequalities and conflicts exist everywhere you look: homeless people are sleeping on park benches surrounded by representative official buildings and trendy bars for a wealthy clientele. They carry their goods along in plastic bags, and to warm up in cold winters they sit on the grids of subway shafts and beg for money - even kids are among them (cf. Lösche 1997: 35).

In no other highly industrialized country of the world, poverty has such a great impact as in the USA – the land of plenty. At the end of the last millennium, 10.8% of the Americans were considered to be poor whereas the Canadians registered 6.5%, the Swedish 3.8%, the Germans 4.7% and the Norwegian 2.9%.[2] Proportionally, America counted almost twice as many poor people as Germany and four times as much as Norway.

Poverty is not just a recent problem; it has afflicted the United States of America for decades with persistency (see fig.1). In 1960, before President Lyndon B. Johnson launched the War on Poverty, the American poverty line was at a rate of 22.2%. That was clearly more than in the years afterwards, when the poverty rate decreased substantially. In the 1970s the rate leveled off at about 11%, but in the 1980s it increased once more to some 14% and peaked in 1983 at 15.2%. After a short period of steady increase in the 1990s, the poverty rate decreased again, but the gap between rich and poor widened. From the most recent trough at the beginning of the new millennium, the rate has risen for the three following years.

In 2003 the official poverty rate was 12.5% which means in absolute numbers that 35.9 million American people lived a life stamped by scarcity (cf. De-Navas-Walt et al. 2004: 9).

Figure 1: Number in Poverty and Poverty Rate: 1959 to 2003

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Source: De Navas-Walt et al. (2004: 9).

1.2 Group Specific Poverty Rates

A particular feature of the United States of America, which is not (yet) common in European countries, is the existence of a group called the “working poor”. A stereotype about poverty is that no active worker is poor but the out-of-works, the workshy and the disabled are. However, this is more complicated than it seems to be: since statistics of poverty have been introduced in the United States of America in 1959, it has been revealed that never before so many people were employed but at the same time poor as in the 1980s. In 1995, almost 30% of the poor remained below the poverty level despite their participation in the labor force (cf. Lösche 1997: 43). This trend did not stop to increase: while the poverty rate for the total population decreased slightly in the second part of the 1990s, the proportion of the working poor went up significantly. In the year 2000, nearly 42% of the poor were “working poor”; the majority of them – three fifths – were, nevertheless, full-time workers.[3]

Poverty is also a widespread phenomenon in certain age groups: children and older citizens are two groups strongly affected by poverty. Every fifth child grows up in poverty and nearly every eighth senior citizen lives below the poverty level. The lowest poverty rates are averagely represented by people in their thirties and forties since Americans have the highest income between 35 and 44 – even though they are charged with costs for their children’s education. Compared to Europe, there is a huge difference in income of older citizens; the descent of their earnings is shocking for Europeans: the income of a 65-year old is lower than that of a 20 to 25-year old (cf. Rode 1992: 120). Nonetheless, no other sub-group has undergone such a sharp decline in poverty rates as the elderly. In 1959, more than 33% of them were poor. A steady decrease could be observed and over the years the rate has fallen to 12.9%. In contrast to that, the poverty rate for children has increased constantly since 1969 so that nowadays one out of five children lives in poverty (cf. Barton & Pillai 1997: 4).

In contrast to what most people think, two thirds (67%) of poor are white (in absolute numbers). But proportionally, blacks and other minorities have to bear a higher share of poverty: while the poor Whites constituted 10.5% of the whole population (in relative terms) in 2003, the Hispanic had a poverty rate of 22.5% and the Blacks showed the highest rate with 24.3%.[4] And this gap has been widening for many years: in comparing the increase in poverty of each racial and ethnic group, one comes aware of the fact that poverty rates have grown fastest for Blacks: 22.7% of them were living below the poverty line in 2001, in 2003 the rate has risen by 1.7 percentage points whereas the Hispanic had a growth of 1.1 percentage points from 2001 to 2003 and the group having the smallest increase in poverty was the Whites with only 0.6 percentage points from 2001 to 2003 (cf. DeNavas-Walt et al. 2004: 41-45).

People in families with a female householder constitute another sub-group that is extremely affected by poverty. As illustrated in the following graph, the number of poor families headed by women rose dramatically between the early 1960s and the mid-1970s: their share in poverty jumped from 26.1% in 1963 to 50.3% in 1978 which means that half of all poor families were headed by women. In between, in 1974-1975, and after the peak level in 1978 (1979-1982) there were short periods of reversal, but from 1983 on, the curve began once more to soar dramatically and hit its peak in 1991 with 54% of poor female headed families. During the next three years (1992-1994) a negligible decline could be observed but yet in 1997 the all-time high of 54.6% was reached. Thenceforward, a gradual decrease took place (1998-2002) but in 2003, numbers turned out to rise again. And these numbers have been alarming!

Figure 2: Poor Families Headed by Women: 1959 to 2003

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Historical Poverty Tables (1959-2003). U.S. Census Bureau.

<http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov13.html>, 03 May 2005.

In comparing the poverty rate for female-headed families[5] with those for male-headed families (no wife present) and married-couple families, it is clearly visible that families with a female householder are affected disproportionately by poverty (see fig. 3)[6]. The lowest rate is represented by married-couple families, followed by that for male-headed families which is situated slightly above. It is perspicuous that two-parent families are better off than those where only one adult has to manage childrearing, household and earning money all by himself, but for all that one questions still remains: Why are families headed by women to such a great extent more likely to live in poverty than the other types of families?

Figure 3[7]: Families in Poverty by Type of Family: 1959 to 2003

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Historical Poverty Tables (1959-2003). U.S. Census Bureau.

<http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov4.html>, 3 May 2005.

2 Defining the Terms

Before going further in medias res it is indispensable to define the terms and to point out how they are used in this paper.

2.1 Poverty

For a discussion of the term of poverty, let me first quote Jones (2001: 125):

[...] poverty is grounded in the material circumstances that shape the everyday lives of men, women and children – the absence of adequate food, shelter, cloth- ing and medical care – and in the tangible struggles and strategies among the poor to provide for themselves and to root out the sources of their own depriva- tion.

Here, absolute or primary poverty is described. It relates poverty to the physical needs of an individual: “‘Absolute poverty’ refers to the lack of the basic requirements to sustain physical life; the subsistence poverty of not having sufficient food and adequate shelter.” (Collins 1994: 489)

In addition to this definition, modern social science defines a second dimension of poverty, the relative or secondary poverty:

[It] is used to demonstrate the inadequacy of absolute or primary poverty by referring to the cultural needs of individuals and families within the context of the rest of society. It is a relativistic definition which relates poverty not only to physical needs but also to the norms and expectations of society. (ibid.)

Poverty as a relative phenomenon has to be seen with respect to the general living standard of a society, the income distribution and the social expectations. Therefore, poverty implies a scarcity of means to take part in generally accepted social processes, with the result of isolation (cf. Seeleib-Kaiser 1992: 23).

In the United States of America, the official definition of poverty is based on absolute poverty, as having too little income to pay for the needs of everyday life.

As poverty is a very complex phenomenon, the light can be thrown on it from myriad points of view. Thus, a bunch of other definitions[8] exist, but within the scope of this paper they play a less important role since the data underlying it are taken from the U.S. Census Bureau which uses the official designation of poverty .

2.2 Taking the Measure

The concept of poverty adopted by the American government plays a major role in association with the question that is dealt with in the following: How is the line drawn between wealth and poverty? How is an American defined as poor? In the 1960s the U.S. government became increasingly aware of the need in alleviating poverty. Therefore, poverty firstly had to be defined and a measure had to be worked out.

The official poverty line was elaborated in 1963-1964 by Molly Orshansky, an economist working for the Social Security Administration. To determine a family’s basic needs, she used data from the Agriculture Department’s Household Food Consumption Survey of 1955, which showed that the average expenditure of the typical American family (of three or more persons) on food accounted for about one third of its money income after taxes. Using these figures, the Department of Agriculture then prepared the economy food plan which provided a nutritious and healthy but inexpensive diet. Taking this information into consideration, Orshansky drew the conclusion, that in order to live above the poverty level, a family’s income should be three times as high as its spending on nutrition which was defined in an “essential food basket”. She then calculated approximately the cost of the food basket and multiplied it by a factor of three – the “multiplier” - to get the official poverty threshold for the typical American family. Eventually, food costs were computed for different prototypes of family size and composition. Furthermore, families were categorized by sex and age of householder, farm/nonfarm status (this distinction was eliminated in 1981) and number of related children under age 18. Consequently, a large set of thresholds (124 to be precise) was created in the early 1960s which are still used today – except for the annual adjustments to price changes and inflation and two minor changes in 1969 and 1981. These changes cut down the number of poverty thresholds from 124 to 48 (cf. Fisher 1992a; 1992b, 1997: n.pag.). For a family of four persons, for instance, the poverty threshold was fixed at 2.973 $ in 1959, by 3.743 $ in 1969 and in 2003, with adjustments for inflation, it was fixed at 18.810 $.[9] So, families with incomes below these thresholds are considered poor, those above are not poor.

Orshansky used the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) data to compute the thresholds since it then provided the only source of nationally representative income data. But the CPS used a pre-tax income model whereas the thresholds had been developed on the basis of the Agriculture Department Survey, which used an after-tax income concept. Being aware of this problem, Orshansky admitted that consequently there would be rather an underestimate than an overestimate of poverty (cf. Fisher 1992a; 1992b, 1997: n.pag.). This was not the only problem; the official poverty line used by the U.S. government has been criticized for numerous other reasons.[10] For this purpose, Molly Orshansky once said:

Unlike some other calculations, those relating to poverty have no intrinsic value of their own. They exist only in order to help us make them disappear from the

scene . . . .With imagination, faith and hope, we might succeed in wiping out the scourge of poverty even if we don't agree on how to measure it.[11]

Definition and measurement of poverty will always remain a matter of dispute which reveals the complexity of the topic. The current method of measuring poverty, however, as it has been the same for some forty years, shows us the trends in number and percentage of persons who are – and respectively were - living in poverty (cf. Meltzer 1986: 13). Thus, the official poverty line is still today used by researchers and politicians to make their calculations and statements on poverty (cf. Gebhardt 1998: 24). Furthermore, it is being used not only for statistical purposes but it is also of great importance as a tool for general policy assessment and as the basic criteria of eligibility for many assistance programs. This means in other words: the official poverty line serves to make the very basic choices about who will receive support and who will not (cf. Ruggles 1990: xv).

2.3 The Feminization of Poverty

The term Feminization of Poverty was firstly coined in 1978 by sociologist Diana Pearce, who worked as a visiting researcher at the University of Wisconsin.[12] She published a paper noting that poverty was rapidly becoming “feminized” in the United States of America. According to Pearce, a decline in the economic status of women has been taking place during the past decades. In 1976, almost two-thirds of the poverty population were women and certain groups were affected more severely, like the aged or black poor women. While numerous important demographic changes have taken place since the 1950s, as for example the increase in divorce, the increase in out-of-wedlock births and therefore the drastic rise in female-headed families, the economic well-being of this expanding group has deteriorated. Female-maintained families were increasing rapidly and the number of poor female-maintained families doubled between 1950 and 1974. In spite of more and more women entering the labor force in those years - which could hold potential for an improvement in women’s economic well-being – their living conditions worsened progressively. To put it in a nutshell, Pearce claimed that “it is women who account for an increasingly large proportion of the economically disadvantaged” (Pearce 1978: 28).

Thus, the term Feminization of Poverty focuses our attention on two aspects. First, it points at sex differences in poverty rates. And second, it underlines the fact that these differences have risen within the last half-century in a process “by which women’s risk of poverty has increasingly exceeded that of men’s” (McLanahan & Kelly 1999: 129).

Garfinkel & McLanahan (1988: 27) argue that the Feminization of Poverty is not – as interpreted by many – synonymous for the deterioration of women’s economic condition but rather due to increases in the relative well-being of other groups, such as the aged, as well as the rising number of female-headed families. Nonetheless, they ascertain that poverty “has been and continues to be wide-spread among female-headed families”(ibid.). In other words, while the economic status of other groups has increased, the poverty level of female headed-families has remained amazingly constant over time. Combined with the fact that the number of people living in female-headed households grew constantly, the result was the Feminization of Poverty (cf. Barton &Pillai 1997: 5).

What the term Feminization of Poverty exactly means and to whom it refers to is not always clear. Does it simply mean that the number of poor women is greater than the number of poor men, or does it mean that women’s poverty rates are higher than men‘s? With respect to poverty rates, does it implicate that women are absolutely or relatively at a higher risk of living in poverty? And last but not least: Does the concept of the Feminization of Poverty include all adult women or only those living in female-maintained families with children?

Northrop (1990:145), for example, simply defines the Feminization of Poverty as a “process through which poverty became more and more concentrated among individuals living in female-headed households”, whereas other scholars (cf. Goldberg & Kremen 1990: 2) divide it up into two meanings: In the stricter sense, it designates the process of female-headed families constituting the majority of the poverty population. In the broader sense, the term “include[s] the women who would be poor if they had to support themselves.” According to Scott[13], between two-thirds and three-fourths of working-age women would be poor if they had to support a family with only one child. For Gimenez (1999b: 333),

[t]he concept, feminization of poverty, not only denotes the greater proportion of the poverty population who is female, but it also connotes the idea of continuous growth and novelty, as if the feminization of poverty were an unprecedented process bound to intensify in the future.

Consequently, the trends in the Feminization of Poverty are measured in different ways depending on how the topic is approached. Some scholars think that trends are best assessed by looking at the percentage of the poverty population that is female (e.g., Pearce 1978), others use absolute poverty rates of women (e.g., Gimenez 1999), and still others focus on relative risks of poverty for different groups, the ratio of women’s poverty rates to men’s poverty rates (e.g., Casper, McLanahan, & Garfinkel 1994).

To sum it up, the Feminization of Poverty can be investigated from different points of view and is caused by a complex set of circumstances. In any case, this trend has not only attracted the attention of social scientists, but also the attention of economists, politicians and the general public (cf. Garfinkel & McLanahan 1988: 28). In the 1980s, some analysts even predicted that if trends at that time persisted “the poverty population will be composed solely of women and their children by the year 2000”.[14] As we know today, these predictions did not come true.[15]

3 The Feminization of Poverty: Its Nature and its Causes

The Feminization of Poverty is a complex phenomenon. The nature and the causes of this trend shall be investigated in this chapter.

There are three major categories of women which are often grouped together in discussions about the Feminization of Poverty. The first group comprises younger adult women living alone who make up a little percentage of women in poverty. Mostly living in transitory situations, they have recently moved out of their parents’ home or just separated from their partner. Like able-bodied men of the same age-group, they receive little transfer payments because they are expected to be able to support themselves. Since their poverty tends to be of temporary nature, they do not really constitute a group of great concern. The second group consists of elderly women living alone who also make up a smaller part of impoverished women. While public transfer policy has been quite successful in reducing poverty among elderly and disabled, they were much less successful in dealing with poverty among individuals of the third group: members of female-headed families (cf. Bane 1988: 388). Since they build the largest and fastest growing group, I will focus on single mothers with children (under age 18).

Another feature of feminized poverty is that black female-headed families are more likely to live below the poverty level than their white counterparts. In 2003, 31.8% of white female-headed families lived below the poverty level, while the blacks had a rate of 42.7%.[16] The proportion of the poor white population being members of female-headed households increased from 26.5% in 1963 to 48.4% in 1973, to 51.7% in 2003. That means that it grew dramatically for whites over the past forty years, but figures are even worse for blacks: the percentage of the poor black population living in single mother families with children under age 18 rose from 70.7% in 1973 to 80.5% in 2003.[17]

Female-headed families can further be distinguished by different types based on whether the mother is widowed, divorced or never-married. While widowed and divorced mothers and their children are generally slightly better-off (cf. Bianchi 1999: 321), unmarried and young mothers are to a greater extent affected by poverty (cf. Pressman: 1988: 59, Wilson 1987: 73). This can mostly be attributed to the fact that widowed mothers and divorced mothers receive more transfer payments than teenage mothers, who additionally are likely to have their education interrupted, have difficulties in finding a job and seldom receive child support from the absent father. Furthermore, “[t]hey are also the most likely to experience future marital instability and disadvantages in the labor market” (Wilson 1987: 73).

How things have developed over the past half century will be portrayed in the following. A lot of distinct factors, whereof the most important are contemplated subsequently, play a role with this phenomenon.

Pearce states in her 1978 article that the Feminization of Poverty is due to women’s inadequate income sources. She argues that despite steadily increasing numbers of women entering the labor force, they are not able to improve their economic status since low wages and occupational sex segregation limit their opportunities. Furthermore, she criticizes the private transfer system: the contribution of absent fathers to the costs of housekeeping and childrearing in female headed-families is very low. Last but not least, Pearce blames the public safety net being too meager (cf. Pearce 1978: 28-32).

Pearce having set the ball rolling, other researches also began to investigate the causes of feminized poverty. Why has poverty become more and more feminized? And what accounts for the slowdown and the reversal of this trend? Which are the circumstances that changed the social and economic living conditions of American men and women during the past decades? As we will see in the next chapter these changes have contributed to a transformed appearance of poverty.

3.1 Changes in Economy

The past decades stand for an era of significant changes in the labor market. Of particular importance are:

- the increase in women’s labor force participation
- the rapid growth of the service sector
- the increased demand for part-time labor and
- the rapid growth of poorly paid occupations[18].

An important alteration in American economy is the increase in women’s labor force participation since World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, the rise in employment was greatest among women aged between forty and fifty, those who had already left behind the most intense period of childrearing. At that time, the life time pattern of women’s labor force participation was interrupted since they dropped out of the labor force completely to raise their children and came back, after a long absence from the labor market, when their children had grown (cf. Bianchi 1999: 318). In the 1970s and 1980s, the main increase in participation was found among younger women, women in their twenties and thirties. This development was partly attributable to changes in the family structure as for example rising divorce rates or deferral and reduction in childbearing. Nevertheless, the most considerable increase in labor force attachment was observed among young married women with children under six – the group which was least probable to work in the decades before. From the 1990s on, the growth of women’s participation in labor force slowed down slightly but given the high rates attained at the end of the 1980s, this development was not surprising (cf. Blau 1998: 117). Today, women and mothers are highly represented in the labor force. For instance, over 40% of women with children less than 1 year are working (cf. Budig & England 2001:205).

As a result of growing female presence in the work force, one should expect that living conditions of women improve constantly. But Pearce (1978: 28) claims:

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 de- pendence on welfare.

She argues that “within occupationally segregated “ghettos”, the demand for cheap labor and the demand for female labor became synonymous” (ibid.).

After World War II, the service sector grew rapidly while a decline in the manufacturing sector took place. In 1950, the primary sector contributed 7.3% to the gross national product of the USA, the secondary sector 38.4% and the tertiary sector 54.1%.[19] The comparison with the numbers of 1987 point up the change in economic structure: the primary and secondary sector lost several percentage points ( to 2.1% and 25.7%), while the tertiary sector prospered rapidly (to 72.2%) (cf. Holtfrerich 1996: 3-5). This means that 79% of the new jobs created between 1973 and 1987 were in the tertiary sector (cf. Dunn & Skaggs 1999: 324). Thus, there was a rapid increase of jobs in the occupations which are low-paid and predominantly female[20]. Women in these segregated occupations are often restricted from moving into better paid (but conventionally male) jobs and they are less likely to be promoted. As a consequence, they do not only suffer limited occupational prospects but they are also confined to work for lower wages than men (cf. Pearce 1978: 29).

Considerable research has been done on occupational sex segregation and its association with the gender gap in wages. For example, it has been revealed that the higher the percentage of women working in a certain occupation, the lower is the average income in that occupation (cf. Pearce 1978: 29) and that women are systematically excluded from higher-paying jobs whereas men are excluded from lower-paying jobs (cf. Pressman 2003: 2). Furthermore, the sex differences in occupational distribution seem to be very stable features of the American labor market. Even though there have been some shifts in sex composition in certain occupations, the majority of them have been either predominantly female or male during the whole 20th century (cf. Goldberg 1990: 25). Still in 2000, sex segregation in profession existed and women still earned less in all occupations than men.[21] This means in short: since women are banished to low-wage jobs, female-headed families stand a greater chance of being poor.

Despite the narrowing of the gender wage gap in the last few years, women still earn less than men. Furthermore, differences in pay between mothers and non-mothers have been observed. Since most women are mothers and motherhood affects women’s wages in a negative way, a great share of women is affected by this “family gap” (cf. Waldfogel 1997: 209). The range of explanations for women’s low wages is wide. Reasons are seen inter alia in the discontinuous work pattern of women and – as a result of it - their lack in job experience: women spend time at home with childrearing so that their job experience is broken up or at least their full-time employment is interrupted. According to human capital theory[22], a lack of experience means less productivity and this in turn leads to lower wages. Mothers may also be less productive at work, since their children and homework take a great part of their energy. Moreover, “mother-friendly” jobs are easier to combine with parenthood and therefore women with children are willing to accept lower wages. Characteristics such as flexible work time, few demands for business trips and assignments in the evenings and on weekends, on-site child care offers or the alternative to work part-time distinguish “parent-friendly” from other jobs. Another explanation for women’s lower earnings could be that women may be discriminated against in the labor force. In view of the fact that women are or will become mothers one day, employers might treat them differently by placing them in less challenging jobs, giving them less career chances and – consequently – paying them lower wages (cf. Budig & England 2001: 204-210). For female-headed families, the wage penalty constitutes even a greater chance to wind up in poverty since there is no adult male who contributes to the family’s income. In contrast to that “[m]en suffer no such penalty – their wages are either unaffected […] or even increase after having a child […]”(Budig & England 2001:205).

As a result of the shift in life time pattern of women’s labor force participation - which has become more and more similar to the continuous pattern of men – women’s work experience has increased considerably (cf. Bianchi 1999: 317) and they tend to invest more in their human capital (cf. Blau 1998: 125). At the same time, a decline in the gender wage gap occurred. Between 1980 and 1995 women’s earnings approached continually those of men: women’s income increased from 64% to 79% of men’s. Some researchers attribute this development to the improvements in women’s education and work experience that result in higher wages; others ascribe it to stagnating or even declining male wages (cf. Bianchi 1999: 317-318) in the 1970s and 1980s when especially young men with little education and few saleable skills were affected by the decline in traditionally male blue-collar jobs. Hence they and their families were more likely to come closer to, or even to fall beneath, the poverty level than before (cf. Bianchi 1999:307, 320; cf. Blau 1998: 131). Another reason for the smaller wage gap could also be the decline in gender segregated occupations that took place after 1970 (cf. Goldberg 1990: 24). But, as already mentioned above, occupational sex segregation is still a stable feature of the American workforce – its decline must be seen in relation to the 1950s and 1960s where the gender segregation had increased considerably (cf. Bianchi 1999: 317).

All in all, the economic situation of women has improved to some extent, as the narrowing of the gender wage gap, the changes in occupational segregation and women’s more consistent labor force attachment over life cycle show, but not nearly enough for many working mothers to lift their families above the poverty line. As Blau (1998: 136) annotates, the findings of changes in the gender wage gap represent relative changes and so the question whether women’s living conditions improved in an absolute sense still remains open. It has to be kept in mind that the gender gap has not been eliminated, its magnitude has only been diminished (cf. op.cit: 139). Last but not least, combining market work and family still seems to constitute big problems and dilemmas for women – particularly for single mothers. And this is not the whole story: other factors such as changes in social structures play also a prominent role in the Feminization of Poverty. A lot of the economic changes cited above interdepend and go hand in hand with the changes in social structures described in the following.

3.2 Changes in Social Structures

Since the 1960s, major changes in social structure have occurred in the American society. Primarily, family structure has changed in a substantial way. In the 1950s, the “typical” American family – the “Ozzie and Harriett” family – consisted of a working father, a homemaker mother and several children (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 69). The concept of the nuclear family as a minimal social group was mainly developed in the USA and had its “golden age” in the decade of the 1950s. Critics have pointed out that this type of sociological analysis, also called the “standard American sociology”, has paid not enough attention to the broad diversity of other family types, especially not to the considerable increase in single-parent families (cf. Cheal 1991: 3-5). During the following decades, the standard family model has become increasingly less important, perhaps it was never as dominant empirically as it was in theory. In 1979, 42% of all families lived according to this model, while they accounted only for 16% in the year 2000 (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 71).

Changes in family structure are of particular interest for explaining poverty trends. Families with only one parent are more difficult to manage than two-parent families and thus they are more vulnerable to poverty. Consequently, since increasingly more families are single-headed, those changes in family structure place more and more individuals at greater risk of poverty (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 69-70). The following figures show clearly that poverty rates vary dramatically by family structure: in 2003, 28% of single-mother families, 13.5% of single-father families and 5.4% of married couples were poor (cf. fig.3 on page 9). Important changes concerning family structure are:

- delays in age of first marriage
- declines in marriage rates
- increases in divorce rates
- declines in childbearing and
- increases of children born out of wedlock.

During the past decades, a delay in age of first marriage has been observed: while nearly 80% of women aged between 25 and 29 were married in 1970, only about 50% of women in that age were wedded in 1999 (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 71-72). Marriage rates in general dropped from 78% in 1970 to 65% in 1995 (cf. Blau 1998: 141) while dramatic increases occurred in divorce rates: the figure of divorced women had doubled from 6% to 12% between 1970 and 1980, and in 1990 an increase was greatest for women aged 40 to 44 (to 18%), while figures remained stable for women between ages 30 to 34. Furthermore, the rate of cohabitation has increased (note, for this, footnote 23). That explains a great part of the delay in age of marriage since cohabitation is often seen as a prelude to, or even a substitute for, marriage, which in turn explains declining marriage rates (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 71-74).

Increasing divorce rates and declining marriage rates are related to changes in childbearing. Declines in childbearing as well as an increase of children born out of wedlock have an important effect on poverty. The average number of children per woman (in her thirties) had fallen from 2.5 in 1972 to about 1.5 in 1990. The increase in non-marital births (from 5% in 1960 to about 33% in 1997) was not only due to increases in fertility of unmarried women, it also correlates with drastic declines in fertility among married women during the 1960s and 1970s. From the 1970s on, birth rates increased for unmarried, while they remained stable for married women. And last but not least, the declining proportion of married women also contributed to the trend to extramarital fertility (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 74-75).

Taken together, all these trends contribute to a growing percentage of single-mother families[23]. As outlined above, in the 1960s and 1970s, most female-headed families were created by rising divorce rates whereas, in the 1980s and 1990s, the growing proportion of mothers who had never married became more important: the rate rose to 31% - from 4% in the 1960s. The distinction between never-married and divorced mothers is important insofar as they differ in their economic profile. Unmarried mothers are in general younger, are not as well educated (cf. Blau 1998: 142), suffer more from unemployment, have lower incomes and receive less child support from the absent father than divorced mothers (cf. Bianchi 1999: 321). Thus, this group tends to be the most jeopardized by poverty.

Diane Pearce (1978: 30) claims that the failure of the private transfer system is of particular importance here:

[…] poverty among female-headed families that is due to the lack of child sup- port will not decrease unless there is real change in the societal context that con- dones and even encourages the absent father’s neglect of his financial response- bilities to his children.

Once, in the heyday of the nuclear family, private transfer took place within the family: the working father gave his homemaker wife a certain amount of his pay for household expenses and childrearing. But changes in family structure – which resulted in increasing numbers of single-mother families - necessitated that these private transfers became institutionalized in the form of child support. But only few absent fathers fulfilled their obligations in a satisfactory way (cf. Pearce 1978: 30). So, the easing of divorce proceedings enhanced on the one hand women’s independence, but on the other hand also their pauperization since the fathers’ contribution to the costs of childrearing were minimal due to weak enforcement of child support payment. Bianchi (1999: 322) summarizes:

If court orders of support were difficult to obtain and enforce for divorced mothers, they were even more problematic for mothers who did not marry the father of their children. Hence, as the source of growth in the number of single parents shifted away from divorced mothers, and to never-married mothers, par- ticularly in the 1980s, the hurdles to the private transfer of funds from absent parents to their children grew.

As of the 1980s, increased attention was paid to the private transfer system. Once left up to the states, it became more and more the concern of the federal government which enacted several laws to enforce child support payment. Considerable improvement has been achieved – even if it took place gradually in relatively long terms. Nevertheless, while enforcement has been strengthened, payments declined. The reasons therefore could be seen in the demographic shift towards increasing births outside marriage in the 1980s. To sum it up, there is little question that the meager private child support by absent fathers augments the risk of female-headed families to live in poverty (cf. Bianchi 1999: 322-324).

The variety of explanations offered for these trends in family structure change is large. A widely accepted explanation attributes these trends to women’s growing economic independence as a result of women’s increasing labor market opportunities and, with it, increasing relative wages. According to Becker’s theory of marriage with increasing labor force participation, women loose their specialization in home production. This reduces gains from marriage since man and woman do not depend mutually on each other any more: “The gain from marriage is reduced by a rise in the earnings and the labor force participation of women and by a fall in fertility because a sexual division of labor becomes less advantageous […]” (Becker 1981: 248; 1991: 353). So, due to a lack of incentives to marry, a rise in non-marriage occurs. Some scholars also refer to the independence hypothesis as a determinant for delayed marriage rather than non-marriage (cf. Oppenheimer & Lew 1995: 107). Furthermore, independence factors might be important for marital break-ups (cf. op.cit: 133) and women’s increased labor force participation could also serve as an explanation for reduced birth rates. Of course it is difficult to distinguish between cause and effect – here we can ask the question “What was first: chicken or egg?” Mothers may be more engaged in labor market work because they have fewer children, or they may have fewer children because they have to divide up their energy between homework and market work (cf. Cancian & Reed 2001: 85).

Another reason for postponement of marriage could be the rise in women’s education: since their labor force attachment during lifetime has changed, they invest more in their education – which is a process that takes time and often results in later marriage or sometimes even in non-marriage, when marriage opportunities decline for older women. This is often referred to as the “career-entry hypothesis” (cf. Oppenheimer & Lew 1995: 108-109).

A further explanation focuses on the deteriorating economic position of less skilled young men and the resulting scarcity of “marriageable” men – the Wilson hypothesis. According to Wilson, reorganization and changes in the industrial sector have led to reduced men’s employment and earnings, especially for less educated urban black men. The “male marriageable pool index” is the “male joblessness trends, in combination with the effects of male mortality and incarceration rates, by presenting the rates of employed civilian men to women of the same race and age group […]” (Wilson 1990 [1987]: 83). This ratio has revealed that increasingly fewer men – in particular young black men – are in a position to support a family, which in turn contributes to a substantial decline in marriage and a rise in female-headed families.


[1] Toquevillle, Alexis de. Democracy in America (f irstly published in the 1830s). Qtd. in Fluck 2003: 53.

[2] Relative Poverty Rates for the Total Population, Children and the Elderly. Luxembourg Income Study.

<http://www.lisproject.org/keyfigures/povertytable.htm>, 12 Apr. 2005.

[3] Cf. A Profile of the Working Poor, 2000. Report 957. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

<http://www.bls.gov/cps/cpswp2000.htm>, 14 Apr. 2005.

[4] The 67% have to be seen in relation to the poverty population; hence they constitute absolute numbers. The 10.5% have to be seen in relation to the whole population; hence they constitute relative numbers. This is due to the fact that whites constitute a much bigger share of the whole U.S. population than blacks and other minorities. Thus, absolute numbers are high for the whites, but in relative terms they are better off than blacks and minorities.

[5] This term is used to refer to families in which there is only one adult woman and no adult male. The Census Bureau uses the term “female householder, no husband present”. Both terms are used synonymously in this paper, as well as terms like “mother-child families”, “single-mother families” and “female-maintained families”.

[6] Note: While fig. 2 shows the poverty rate for female-headed families in proportion to all poor families, fig. 3 shows the rate for all families in total (poor and nonpoor).

[7] Figures for married-couple families and families with a male householder, no wife present are not available until 1972.

[8] For another concept of poverty, see,e.g., Fukuda-Parr (1999). He describes the difference between “human poverty” and “income poverty”. While “income poverty” is a lack of what is necessary for material well-being, “human poverty” is defined as a lack of opportunities and choices. He claims that women face restrictions on their choices and opportunities that men do not.

[9] Cf. Historical Poverty Tables (1959-2003). U.S. Census Bureau.

<http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov1.html>, 03.05.2005.

[10] A detailed consideration of this issue would take us well beyond the scope of this paper. For more information about criticism on the official poverty measure, see,e.g., Holtfrerich (1996: 133-138); Ruggles (1990: e.g. 6, 36-38).

[11] Orshansky, "Demography and Ecology of Poverty," in Proceedings of a Conference on Research on Poverty (submitted to The Center for the Study of Social Problems, National Institute of Mental Health, under provisions of a grant from NIMH), Washington, DC: Bureau of Social Science Research, Inc., June 1968: 28.qtd. in Fisher (1992).

[12] Cf. Curriculum Vitae Diana May Pearce. University of Washington.

<http://depts.washington.edu/sswweb/faculty/docs/cv-pearce.pdf>, 17 Apr. 2005.

[13] Scott, Hilda (1986). “Women and the Future of Work”. Unpublished paper, Cambridge, MA. Qtd. in Goldberg & Kremen (1990: 3).

[14] National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, 12th Report: Critical Choices fort he 1980s (Washington, D.C.: August, 1980) pp.7-19), qtd. in Garfinkel, McLanahan (1988:28).

[15] Some critics of this prediction have pointed out that this statement foretells that “by the year 2000 all of those men who are presently poor will be either rich or dead” (Alliances Against Women’s Opression. 1983. “Poverty: Not for Women only – A Critique of the Feminization of Poverty”. AAWO Discussion Paper No. 3, September. Qtd. in: Gimenez 1999a: 337).

[16] Historical Poverty Tables (1959-2003). U.S. Census Bureau.

<http://www.census.gov/hhes/poverty/histpov/hstpov4.html>, 3 May 2005.

[17] My own calculations on the basis of ibid.

[18] “An occupation is a collection of jobs involving similar activities within or across establishments […] The 1990 census distinguished 503 detailed occupations. In contrast, a job is a specified position in an establishment in which workers perform particular activities. […] The Dictionary of Occupational Titles (U.S. Department of Labor, 1977) distinguishes more than 20,000 jobs” (Reskin & Padavic 1999: 344).

[19] The primary sector contains agriculture, forestry and fishery. The secondary sector comprises industry and handicraft and the tertiary sector incorporates the production of services (cf. Holtfrerich 1996: 1).

[20] This even led to the creation of the expression ‘pink collar’ work. The ‘pink-collar’ consists of work traditionally or most likely done by women. The term is intended to parallel ‘white-collar’ (which corresponds to nonmanual labor) and ‘blue-collar’ (which corresponds to manual labor)

(cf. <http://www.answers.com/topic/pink-collar> (Wikipedia), 20 Apr. 2005).

[21] Cf. Occupations 2000. U.S. Census Bureau. <http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/c2kbr-25.pdf>, 20 Apr. 2005: 2-4.

[22] For more information about human capital theory see: Becker, Gary (1993). Human Capital, 3rd edition. Chicago: University Press of Chicago.

[23] A problem with this term is that a growing percentage persons who are officially defined as “single heads” are actually cohabiting with another unrelated adult individual. Thus, a double income exists in that household, but it is not taken into account when computing poverty thresholds. Otherwise, the extent of income pooling in cohabiting families is fairly unknown (cf. e.g., Blau 1998: 141).

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Feminization of Poverty? Living Conditions of Women in the United States
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The view of America as the land of unlimited opportunities and equal chances is still widespread today. The paradox with this myth is that today, the USA is the Western nation with the widest gap between rich and poor. A closer look to the statistics reveals that certain groups and minorities seem to be more disadvantaged than others. This thesis explains the complex nature of the term "Feminization of Poverty" and is dedicated to poor women in the USA.
Feminization, Poverty, Living, Conditions, Women, United, States
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M.A. Anja Villinger (Author), 2005, Feminization of Poverty? Living Conditions of Women in the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/51540


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