Poverty is Now a Woman Thing

Hillary Smith

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The other day, I was perusing the Women section of Huffington Post when I came across an article (surprise, surprise) about Maria Shriver’s recent report on American women’s financial situation. The report is entitled The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. Most alarmingly, the report finds that one in three American women live in or almost in poverty. It points out that these women are having to do everything: parent their children, work several jobs so that they can provide for themselves and their children, and often care for older parents or other family members. Caring for themselves undoubtedly gets pushed to the bottom of their list of priorities.

I’ll admit, I was a little shocked by this. I mean, one third of all American women is a lot. Obviously, I have been aware of this country’s gross income imbalance and the financial struggles of millions of Americans, but I had never thought of it as a woman problem. I don’t think many of us do. We tend to lump financial struggles into a gender neutral perspective. Discovering this report opened my eyes to the fact that women are the ones suffering the most.

According to the report, there are three main reasons that women are so much more likely to be in poverty than men. First, a much larger percentage of women than men work in caregiving jobs, which don’t usually pay very well or offer good benefits. These types of jobs are also referred to as “pink-collar.” Second, higher education is getting more and more difficult to obtain, despite the fact that more women earn degrees than men. Third, single parents are becoming almost the norm, and it is usually the mother who assumes this role. The report states that “more than half of the babies born to women ages 30 and younger are born to unmarried mothers, most of them white.”

The report essentially calls for the country to realize that we cannot leave women behind. They are vital to our shared economic growth, so we can’t allow them to keep falling so behind financially.

Obviously, I agree with this. However, I did find myself thinking, “This is all great and very true, but what does ‘not leaving women behind’ look like in terms of tangibles? What are the concrete steps that we need to take in order to find a solution to this?”

So I found the report’s executive summary on the website for the Center for American Progress, which coauthored it with Shriver. At the end of the summary, I found what I was looking for: a list of proposed solutions. This included public policies encouraged by the report, such as raising the minimum wage, making work and income support more available, making higher paying jobs more accessible, paid leave for single mothers, and more accessible child care that single mothers can afford and count on. It also included a call to action for women: we must recognize the vital role we play as breadwinners and stimulants for national economic growth. We must do our best to reach our full potential, and put “college before kids.”

I found this call to action interesting. I mean, I’m all for us women taking pride in our crucial societal role, because we should, and probably not enough of us do. But I had been under the impression that this report was about the struggles of women trying to reach their full potential but not being able to, due to the aforementioned factors, and ending up in this near-poverty situation. So it just seemed a little odd for them to add that catch phrase at the end. We can’t always put “college before kids.” College is horrendously expensive. Not everyone can afford to reach their full potential. Furthermore, as long as a woman’s right to contraception keeps getting attacked, it will be very difficult to prevent having those babies that are so hindering to our progress.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that yes, us women should consider ourselves special and do everything we can to get fulfill our ambitions. But a lot of the time, that’s not on us. There are barriers to our progress that are beyond our control. I think the writers of this report recognize that, which is why they proposed specific public policies. I have a feeling that, because we all realize that Congress will likely not do anything about this for a while, they just wanted something else to tell women to do while we wait for these public policies to possibly be enacted. I understand this. But shallow catch phrases are not going to motivate us or make us more optimistic about our circumstances.

All that being said, this report is very eye-opening. It is my hope that Americans – men as well as women – continue to discover it and realize how difficult it really can be for a woman in this country.

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