The Feminization of Poverty

The feminization of poverty is a term that reflects that changes that are being seen in households that are in poverty. Specifically, it is a reference to the increase of poverty in households that are headed by women compared to households headed by men or by couples. In looking at poverty on a global scale, about 60% of the 1.5 billion people who live on just $1 per day or less happen to be women.

Yet living in a developed country doesn’t protect women from the feminization of poverty. In a look at households with children in the United States, just 6% of married couples live in poverty. For single fathers, that figure jumps up to 16%.

But for single mothers in the US, more than 30% of them are currently living at or below the Federal poverty threshold. So this begs a question: why are women more vulnerable to poverty and its effects than any other group?

Poverty Affects Women in More Than Just Income

One could easily point to the overall wage gap, where women make about $0.25 less per dollar that a man earns in the same job, as a primary reason for poverty. Minority women in the US sometimes make 40 cents less for every dollar a man makes in the same job. It’s a valid argument, especially since it is a data point that reinforces the gender bias and fixed gender roles that are in many societies.

Yet income is not the only cause of poverty. The biological nature of being a woman automatically puts her at a disadvantage.

Here’s why: men don’t get pregnant.

Women are in a role where they must be responsible for the childbearing process. This affects her opportunities at career advancement and education, making it difficult to compete with men who do not need to carry around a developing child for 40 weeks. If a pregnancy is deemed to be a high risk, then even with legal safeguards in place to protect employment, women are more likely to find themselves out of work.

It’s not just older women who are affected by the effects of pregnancy. 30% of all teenage girls who drop out of school cite either pregnancy or parenthood as their key reason. For minority women, it’s closer to 40% who cite pregnancy or parenthood as a reason. That sets the stage for future households that will continue to struggle with poverty.

  • Two out of every 3 families that are started by a teenager is defined as being “poor” or living in poverty.
  • 25% of teen mothers will be dependent on welfare and public benefits within three years of having their first child.
  • Fewer than 70% of children who are born to teen mothers will one day earn a high school diploma, compared to 81% of children who are born to older parents.

Some teen mothers do finish high school: about 40% of them. Yet just 2% of teen mothers will have a college degree by the age of 30.

And for a majority of women who have their first child before the age of 20, the father of that child is not usually living with them. Fathers in this position are often unemployed or under-employed as well, which means the average amount of child support paid per year in this described situation is between $800-$2,000.

This data brings us to one unescapable conclusion: the reason why the rates of poverty are going up for women is directly tied to the rapid increase of single-mother households which are below the poverty threshold.

Why Healthcare Services Are Also Directly Linked to Poverty for Women

The feminization of poverty may have biological and social structure roles as its foundation, but for women in the developing world especially, there is a third issue that keeps women in poverty: a lack of healthcare access. Poor health for a woman affects their ability to earn an income.

Although the World Health Organization notes that life expectancy rates for women are generally higher than they are for men, unequal access to care actually lowers the quality of life that a woman can obtain.

In one of the poorest regions of the world, sub-Saharan African, more than 60% of the adults living with HIV/AIDS are women. Violence against women is so prevalent that in some areas, 71% of women have suffered either physical or sexual violence that was committed by an intimate male partner. When poverty is involved, there is a greater likelihood of violence occurring.

There are also the social structures that prevent women from accessing healthcare in some areas of the world. Because women are often treated as a second-class gender, men expect to be able to take advantage of what little services are available in the developing world before women. This has led to a 50% greater burden of COPD for women, higher rates of addiction, and high rates of maternal death.

More than 1,600 women and more than 10,000 infants die every day from complications in a pregnancy or during childbirth that are completely preventable. Nearly 99% of maternal deaths occur in the developing world.

So the feminization of poverty not only forces women into a role where they must earn less, but their health is placed at a greater risk, even though their health is also dependent on their education and career. If only one thing goes wrong for a girl growing up, especially in areas of extreme poverty, then poverty strikes.

And when it strikes, it is very reluctant to let go of its firm grip.

Employment and the Feminization of Poverty

Although the developed world has made great strides to equalize the role of women in society for the past 2-3 generations, employment opportunities from a global perspective are still quite limited. Women are often kept from being able to be in control of their financial situation because they are given an unequal access to the jobs that are either good-paying or personally fulfilling.

Employment is generally defined as a formal or an informal opportunity. When someone is employed in a formal job, it means there are rights, benefits, and wage offers that meet specific expectations, regulations, and laws. Informal employment is your “cash under the table” type of opportunity. It is unregulated, unregistered, and offers very few rights to those who are employed.

Most women in the world today, if they are employed, are engaged in an informal workplace. Not only does this add an extra level of risk to their health, but it also means that women are at a natural disadvantage for wages on a global scale because of the types of jobs that are made available to them.

It’s like having a wage gap on steroids.

More Women Are Living in Poverty Than You Probably Realize

In the US, working mothers are often described as women who “want it all.” They want the benefits of a career and the benefits of being a full-time mother. The data, however, suggests this stereotype is completely false. Women in are struggling with poverty are already doing it all. They are parents, providers, and caregivers while also working full-time.

Despite all of that work, they still can’t get ahead. Their families fail to prosper. And what our communities have failed to realize is that the feminization of poverty is weighing them down.

When women are unable to succeed, it is much harder for that community to find success. It is such a strong influence, in fact, that the increase of poverty for single-mother households in the US has held the national economy from achieving its full potential since the 2009 recovery from the Great Recession.

The Shriver Report puts these facts about the feminization of poverty into glaring reality.

  • Almost 70% of the US employees who are making minimum wage are women, with most in this situation receiving no mandatory sick leave. That means if a woman gets sick, she doesn’t get paid.
  • About 42 million women make less than $47,000 per year when living in a household with four members, which puts a woman at the brink of poverty if she is not living in poverty already.
  • Hispanic women make just 55 cents on the dollar compared to white men in the same job.
  • 2 out of every 3 American women are either the primary income earner for their household or work in a co-income situation with their partner.
  • Women outnumber men in terms of having a higher education, yet men still make more money than women at every level of educational attainment – including doctorate degrees.

Then there’s the changing face of relationships today. Having a child for many couples has become the cornerstone of their relationship. It’s intended to be the anchor that keeps them together instead of being a reflection of a commitment already in place to be together. Add in the fact that condoms are seen more for their disease prevention than their contraceptive potential and this increases the risk of a pregnancy.

For modern couples, not wearing a condom has become a display of trust during intimacy. It shows trust in the other partner. And then end result is a higher chance of becoming pregnant.

Many fathers see having children as the opportunity to wipe a slate clean. Yet, at the end of the day, low-income fathers will leave their children 40% of the time. That’s 1.5 times more often than all fathers in all financial situations.

So How Do We Solve the Problems Caused by the Feminization of Poverty?

There are basically two ways that change can happen in a society: by evolution or by revolution. The goal is always first to evolve how people think in a society because this gets them actively involved in change. Yet because of the ingrained social bias that is generally directed towards women as a whole, revolution tends to be the only way forward.

Think about it like this: in the United States, women didn’t officially receive the same voting rights as men until August 18, 1920, when the 19th Amendment was officially ratified. In less than 100 years, women have been able to not only get equal rights in voting, but they’ve also been able to make great strides in job equality, healthcare equality, and other key poverty factors.

Even the developed world is not so far removed from the social bias against women that for so long treated them as second-class citizens. These attitudes are stubborn and persistent and will not go away any time soon, even in the developed world.

So what does a revolution against the feminization of poverty potentially look like?

It begins by giving women the opportunity to carve out their own opportunities. Crowdfunding and micro-loans are a proven way that women can make things happen on their own. On a site like Kickstarter, women are 8% more likely to be fully funded in their campaigns than men. Women are also more likely to support other women in their business ventures. Women on crowdfunding platforms also raise more money per campaign than men do.

And these figures translate to micro-loans as well. Women who are entrepreneurs in the developing world are more likely to pay their micro-loans back. They’re more likely than men to establish a meaningful business opportunity.

When you put women together into a team to create business ideas, the benefits multiply. Some of this has to do with women helping women, but to some extent, that is the point. Men can look at the data about the feminization of poverty and try to act, but women are experiencing the feminization of poverty and are forced to act.

Revolution can also look like authentic governmental representation that is equal for all genders. The fact that a man with a bachelor’s degree can earn double what a woman with a bachelor’s degree can earn should be shocking. It de-emphasizes the idea that a woman should even pursue a higher education. Nearly one-third of teen pregnancies occur because girls look at their future opportunities, see facts like these, and decide that being a parent is more rewarding than struggling against men to get a good-paying job.

The Feminization of Poverty Can Be Changed

Meaningful wage equalization laws could help to further cut the rates of teen pregnancies and encourage more women to get involved in the workplace. Advocating women who want to be entrepreneurs with easier access to funding, no matter where they may be in the world today, can help female-led households be able to earn more. When women can lift their households out of poverty, they can lift entire communities out of poverty.

96% of single mothers say that paid time off would be the one benefit that could help them the most in attempting to manage their households.

And then finally, offering equal access to meaningful healthcare could prevent many of the poverty issues that are being seen today. Even in the developed world, if a woman is unable to work, she isn’t going to be paid. She might even lose her job. Sometimes meaningful healthcare can be several miles away. Having a structure in place that can bring a woman’s healthcare needs to her front door could change many of the symptoms of poverty right away.

Women have been struggling for centuries for basic equality measures. In the past 100 years, many successes have been accomplished, but there is much more work to do. If we can stand together and fight for true equality, then we can get more women out of poverty and potentially be the generation that stops poverty for everyone.

Blog Post Author Credentials
Louise Gaille is the author of this post. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Louise has almost a decade of experience in Banking and Finance. If you have any suggestions on how to make this post better, then go here to contact our team.