Thursday, January 16, 2014

Women and poverty: Living in crisis mode

The headline in a new article in The Atlantic invites debate:  "Wealthy Women Can Afford to Reject Marriage in a Way that Poor Women Can't."  This is just one argument writer Emma Green examined on the issue of single women and marriage.

"For poor, uneducated women, especially those who have kids, the question of whether to get married looks a lot different," Green wrote.

The beginning of the piece references an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal written by former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer.  Fleischer asserts that "'marriage inequality' should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don't."  He then went on to present statistics from various sources in an effort to prove his point.

Fleischer added, "One of the differences between the haves and the have-nots is that the haves tend to marry and give birth, in that order. The have-nots tend to have babies and remain unmarried. Marriage makes a difference."

Author and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich offered another perspective at a summit this week on poverty among females.

"When you say to women, to get out of poverty you should get married, my question to them is how many men you have to marry," said Ehrenreich, the author of well-known book on low-wage workers, Nickel and Dimed. "Marrying a 10-dollar-an-hour man gets you nowhere, so you'd really have to marry three or four."

(If you haven't read Ehrenreich's  Nickel and Dimed:  On (Not) Getting By in America, I highly
recommend it. The author details the field research she conducted when she went undercover as a low-wage worker in various industries.)

This week Maria Shriver's rolled out her new report on the state of women in America.  The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink focuses on some big questions, among them:

  • Why are millions of women financially vulnerable when others have made such great progress?
  • Why are millions of women struggling to make ends meet even though they are hard at work? 

A team of researchers and reporters contributed to the study.  Shriver is among them.  She took the time to dispel some stereotypes about low-income women.  For instance, more than half of the babies born to moms who are under 30 are born to unmarried mothers, and most of them are white.  In addition, writes Shriver:

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.
  • 40 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.

This is the first post-recession recovery since 1970 in which women have continued to lose jobs while men have gained more than 1.1 million jobs.

Included in the study is an opinion piece by Kathryn Edin, a leading researcher on women and poverty.  Edin took a look at another side of the equation -- men -- in her piece, "What About the Fathers?"  (The report is based, in part, on a book Edin wrote with Timothy J. Nelson:  Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City.)

Edin provided an alternative view of low-income, single dads, based on in-depth interviews with more than 100 inner-city fathers:

These young people know that the right time to have a child is when you are economically ready, but many are afraid that the right time may never arrive. And they’re right. Because of deindustrialization, automation, and outsourcing, there are precious few well-paying or even steady jobs for those without skills these days. Byron Jones, an inner-city dad who is now in his mid-30s, told us that he advised younger men in his neighborhood to hold off on having kids until “you are financially able to take care of the children.” Then he paused and added, “And that’s when nowadays? I have no idea, because—when is it? I mean, shoot, for the average guy, stable employment don’t last long. You might work this week and be out the next week, you know?” So, with little confidence that the right moment to have a child will ever arrive, they allow fate to dictate the timing.

Being on the brink of foreclosure, losing pay to stay at home to care for a sick child or parent, worrying about dwindling food in the pantry, praying that the gas stays on until the next billing cycle, trying to get time off to attend a parent-teacher conference at school, scraping up enough money to pay for child care.  That's not a Lifetime movie; it's the day-to-day life of women nationwide. 

Shriver wrote:
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.

The Shriver Report was completed in partnership with the Center for American Progress.  To obtain a copy of the full report, click here.

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