One may be quick to assume that the feminization of poverty does not occur in the United States, where the Constitution defines women as equal to men and some women hold significant positions of power and influence. A country with as many resources as the United States has the power to make a substantial contribution to aid economically marginalized women. However, the United States has continuously failed to sufficiently address and utilize social policy to combat this harrowing trend.
In fact, when an international study in the mid-1990s compared the world's eight most industrialized nations, it found that the United States actually had the greatest gap in the rates of poverty between men and women, with women experiencing poverty at a rate 38% higher than men.
Presently there are more than 65 million women6 in the labor force, which is double what it was just a few decades ago. Despite this and women's increased levels of work experience and access to higher education, however, it is well known that women in the United States today make on average 77 cents to every dollar a man earns.
Though President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, making it illegal for women to be paid lower wages for comparable work, a number of factors still contribute to pay differentials between men and women. Women continue to be subjected to various forms of discrimination in hiring and in the workplace, and many pursue what are considered "pink-collar" jobs, clustered in fields such as education, child care, and nursing. "Pink-collar" jobs pay markedly less than male-dominated "blue-collar" jobs, and lack the opportunities for benefits and upward mobility of higher-ranking positions. Stereotypes about employment are gradually being dissolved as many women have increased access to higher education, yet they still stubbornly pervade, if unconsciously. Ask a young child to draw a doctor or lawyer, and the majority of the time, the child will draw a man. Ask the child to draw a teacher or nurse, and the child will scribble a decidedly feminine image. Why is it that these stereotypes are allowed to perpetuate?
The majority of children living below the poverty line in the United States are a dependent in a single-mother household. Since 1960, the proportion of children living with single mothers has steadily risen from 8% to 23% in 2006.7
In 2005, the rate of poverty in households headed by single women was approximately 36.9%, compared to around 17.6% for households headed by single men.8
Poverty can not only be gendered, but racialized as well. Statistically, women of color face an even greater burden to bear, as they are even more likely to live below the poverty line. As both women and persons of color, they may have to contend with a double-dose of discrimination, which can significantly hinder their prospects for a steady income and a decent job in a highly competitive market.
The disparity is most obvious in urban centers and areas with a large population of immigrants. The barriers to financial stability seem all the more insurpassable to immigrant women, who encounter language barriers, prejudice, and, if they are not American citizens, difficulty in acquiring a job with any kind of benefits.
For more information on how the United States defines and measures poverty, see the National Poverty Center website.