The Female Face of Poverty

Fifty years after the War on Poverty began, millions of women are still struggling to get by.
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Caitlin Bell fixes her daughter's hair in the morning in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Barbara Kinney)

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I'm not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the United States do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of these Americans are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other. 

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • Forty percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • Seventy-five percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population
  • Seventy-three percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled)
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled) …
  • And more likely than men to regret marrying when they did (52 percent, compared to 33 percent of low-income men)
  • Nearly a third of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them

Overwhelmingly they favor changes that will help balance work and family responsibilities. Eighty-seven percent of low-income women—and 96 percent of single moms—identify paid sick leave as something that would be very useful to their lives.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side: 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. And 78 percent said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure to shape policy.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re the majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

With this power, we women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro-life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for the right to vote. 

It’s time to come together again. By pushing back and putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream—for ourselves, for our daughters and sons, for our mothers and fathers, for our nation. We have the power—not just to launch a new War on Poverty, but a new campaign for equity, for visibility, for fairness, for worth, for care.   

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Maria Shriver is a journalist, the founder of The Shriver Report, and the former first lady of California.

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