Feminization of Poverty in the United States

The ‘feminization of poverty’ is currently a phenomenon of great concern to social scientists and social workers.  In the United States, the fastest growing type of family structure is that of female-headed households and, because of the high rate of poverty among these households, their increase is mirrored in the growing number of women and children who are poor; almost half of all the poor in the U.S. today live in families headed by women.  Women have higher poverty rates than do men for two reasons.  First, their economic resources are often less than those of men.  Second, they are more likely to be single parents during their working lives and to be unmarried and living alone in their later years. Poverty is more likely to be a chronic problem among female-householder families. Minority women are highly represented among the poor because of their minority status and a higher risk of single parenthood (Devine, Plunkett, and Wright, 1992). Furthermore, the poverty of women is reflected in the poverty of children.  “There are almost 13 million poor children in the U.S.: 52 percent of them live in families headed by women and the poverty rate for white, black, and Spanish-origin children living in female-headed households is 46 percent, 66 percent, and 71 percent respectively” (Rodger, 1986: 32).  The feminization of poverty is clearly a feminist issue; however, it is also a socialist concern.  The eradication of poverty, which is a Democratic Socialist and Marxian issue, requires a feminist analysis and solution. 

 “The Feminization of poverty” was coined by Diana Pearce to capture a basic contradiction in women’s economic status that emerged between 1960 and 1979.  In spite of increased women’s participation in the labor market, affirmative action programs, and increased entry of women into the professions, the number of female-headed families living below the poverty level increased dramatically while the number of male-headed poor families declined.  By 1970, women headed 48 percent of all poor families, which contrasted sharply with only 23 percent in 1959 (Erie, Rein and Wiget 1983:100).  In addition, because of the increasing number of poor elderly women, the total number of women living below the poverty level jumped in relation to men.  In 1969, 37 percent of the adult poor were women; by 1979, two out of three adults living below the poverty line were women (Stallard, Ehrenrich and Sklar, 1983).

The facts documenting the increasing number of women and children can be found in several recent publications (e.g., Stallard et al., 1983; Sidel, 1986; and Rodger, 1986), all of which have documented the ways in which women are particularly vulnerable to poverty, particularly minority women.  Poverty is being ‘feminized,’ which is clearly expressed in a quote from the President’s National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity (1981):

All other things being equal, if the proportion of the poor in female-householder families were to continue to increase at the same rate as it did from 1976 to 1978, the poverty population would be composed solely of women and their children before the year 2000 (Rodgers, 1986: 7).

 Studies have shown that the causes of women’s poverty are different from the causes of men’s poverty (e.g., Stallard et al., 1983; Sidel, 1986: and Rodger, 1986).  Researchers have focused on factors that are specific to the situation of women in modern society.  As a group, and regardless of class, women are more vulnerable to poverty than men and that, consequently, women’s poverty has different causes than the poverty of men. Below is a statement by Karen Stallard about the difference between women and men’s poverty:

There is a fundamental difference between male and female poverty: for men, poverty is often the consequence of unemployment and a job is generally an effective remedy, while female poverty often exists even when a woman works full-time…….Virtually all women are vulnerable—a divorce or widowhood is all it takes to throw many middle-class women into poverty (Stallard et al., 1983:20).

 To explain the feminization of poverty, we have to invoke some of the things that many women have in common, such as motherhood and low paying jobs. Single motherhood is perhaps the most important determinant of female poverty in the United States (Ehrenriech and Stallard, 1982; Sidel, 1986).  Other predictors of female poverty include unemployment, divorce, loss of higher-paying manufacturing jobs, domestic responsibilities including child and elder care, and lower wages (Ehrenriech and Stallard, 1982). 

According to Scott (1984) women’s poverty has two sources: (a) their unpaid responsibilities for raising children and other family labor and (b) sex discrimination.   In addition, the lack of affordable childcare is a huge detriment.  Approximately one-fifth of unemployed women are jobless due to lack of childcare.

            Low wages, often due to occupational segregation, discrimination, and insufficient work hours, are major contributors to poverty among women.  Females are concentrated in the secondary sector of the labor force, which consists of low-paying jobs. In addition, most newly created jobs are in the lower-paying service sector and are occupied mainly by women (Smith, 1986). 

            As the preceding research indicates, the feminization of poverty is associated with many interrelated structural and ideological variables.  Stallard et al. (1983) sums up the determinant of the feminization of poverty as follows:

It is a direct outgrowth of women’s dual role as unpaid labor in the home and underpaid labor in the work force.  The pace has been quickening by rising rates of divorce and single motherhood, but the course of women’s poverty is determined by the sexism and racism ingrained in an unjust economy (51).

Recent literature has produced not only a detailed description, but also some plausible and obvious explanations of the feminization of poverty.  In addition to these structural economic factors, Sidle (1986) argues that women’s poverty is also the result of ideological and structural constrains peculiar to women.  Women socialized to put family obligations first, to see themselves primarily as wives and mothers, are likely to neglect or overlook the need to develop occupational and educational skills that will help them support themselves if they remain single or their marriage breaks up.  In addition, Women’s domestic activities, in spite of their obvious significance, are devalued and time consuming, and interfere with their full participation in the labor force (Sidel, 1986: 25-35).  Feminists use the term ‘dual role’ to explain the fact that most women must integrate wage work and housework to make a living.  I will now discuss the theoretical approach of Socialist feminism and how it can be used as a tool to explain the feminization of poverty, particularly the connection between the ‘dual role’ of women’s labor and poverty. 

The social problem of women and poverty in general is complex and deeply entrenched in the macro systems of capitalism, patriarchy, ideology and discourse.  Research has revealed that the feminization of poverty is continuing to increase in the United States and is abhorrently evident in third world countries.  According to a report by the Division for the Advancement of Women  (2000) “The majority of the 1.5 billion people living on 1 dollar a day or less are women. Worldwide, women earn an average slightly more than 50 percent of what men earn. In addition, the gap between women and men caught in the cycle of poverty has continued to widen in the past decade” (2).

It is clear that the existing capitalistic system in the United States is not able solve the growing problems of poverty and gender/racial oppression.  Both socialist feminism and structural social work as a critical theory offer an analysis of poverty that not only emphasizes the structural causes of poverty as opposed to blaming the individual, they are inclusive of a diversity of perspectives, and critical of dominant ideologies and power structures.  However, structural social work theory is more informed and cutting edge as it inculcates the jewels of postmodern and modern social theory.  While all theories have their biases and flaws, they both advocate for an alternative social vision consistent with progressive social work values in which life is free of domination.  

Perhaps the most difficult challenge to uniting in social causes is the deeply entrenched system of competition and rampant individualism, which continues to divide and conquer people. In addition, we are so conditioned to buy into the overly “yang” work- a-holism that keeps people so spun out that they don’t have the energy or volition to challenge status quo or be politically engaged.  I am convinced that in order for radical change to occur, it will require both revolution and evolution. Because things are so deeply entrenched and so many people are ignorant of what is truly going on, we need awakened light-workers to work from within the system.  However, we also need visionaries who are working from the margins on a grass roots level as they will be the informed leaders and visionaries working behind the scenes.  Marxists tend to believe that social work must operate outside the existing system or else it will become incorporated into the present social order and end up protecting it rather than changing it (Mullaly, 2007).  This is a good point when one considers how easy it is to get complacent when you are getting a descent paycheck. 

The power elite is not going to just hand over their power.  As a result, people are going to have to wake up and join forces if any social change is going to occur.  Karl Marx was right when he said that the contradictions in capitalism would eventually cause it to self-destruct (Mullaly 2007). We are witnessing its collapse at this very moment in history.  With the middle-class slide occurring we might see enough class conflict to produce a revolution.  We simply haven’t had enough people suffering enough to act as a catalyst to radical revolution, but this will inevitably change in the near future.  

Karl Marx predicted the fall of capitalism in the 1800’s, but he was written off by social theorists who weren’t conscious or smart enough to receive the prophetic vision he revealed to us.  Perhaps one of my favorite quotes by Mullaly is this “Unfortunately, too many social workers and social theorists have dismissed Marxism as an interesting but outdated theory of society and social change.  Nothing could be further from the truth” (2007:142).  There is nothing new under the sun, just more complex versions of social problems that have been occurring for centuries under patriarchy.  Civilizations have come and gone and if we can’t rally to make positive changes, nature will find a compassionate way to put an end to our collective neurosis and suicide mission. A tidal wave is coming with the global aging population and most people don’t even see it coming. If we aren’t able to make effective changes now, it will inevitably be made for us-- and it won’t be pretty.





Butler, Judith. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Collins, Patricia Hill. (1990).  Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Erie, Steven P., Martin Rein, and Barbara Wiget. (1983). Women and the Reagan Revolution: Thermidor for the Social Welfare Economy.  In Families, Politics, and Public Policy, Irene Diamond (ed.) New York: Longman, 100.

Devine, J.A., Plunkett, M., & Wright, J.D. (1992). The Chronocity of Poverty: Evidence from the PSID, 1966-1987. Social Forces, 70, 787-812.

Hartmann, Heidi. (1979).  Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex.  In, Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminist, Zillah Eisensten, (ed.), 206-247.

Mullaly, Bob. (2007).  The New Structural Social Work.  Oxford University Press, Ontario,    Canada.

Rodgers Jr., Harrell R. (1986). Poor Women, Poor Families.  New York: M.E. Sharp.

Scott, H. (1984). Working Your Way to the Bottom: The Feminization of Poverty. Boston: Pandora.

Sidel, Ruth. (1986). Women and Children Lat: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America.  New York: Viking.

Smith, J. (1986).  The Paradox of Women’s Poverty: Wage-Earning Women and Economic Transformation. In B.C. Gelpi, N.C.M. Harstock, C.C. Novak, &M.H. Stober (Eds.), Women and Poverty Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 121-140.

Stallard, Karin, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Holly Sklar. (1983). Poverty in the American Dream: Women and Children First. Boston: South End Press.

United Nations Department of Public Information. (2000).  "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General.” Retrieved from: www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/followup/session/presskit/fs1.htm

Williams, Fiona. (1989).  Social Policy: A Critical Introduction: Issues of Race, Gender and Class. New York: Blackwell.




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