With close to 100 million Americans living at or near the poverty level, most of them women, are any of the Democratic candidates addressing the crisis?
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When Laura Campbell’s car broke down in March, she officially became a poverty statistic. With a job that pays only $10 an hour, Campbell has no savings and is deeply in debt. Five years ago the company for which she had worked for nearly 15 years downsized and she was laid off. She expected to get another job right away, but dozens of applications later and with her unemployment running out, she took the first job offered to her. It was a 40-minute commute by car and a wage lower than any she had been paid since graduate school.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I had no savings left, I had no health insurance, I had no alternative.”
The temporary job has become semi-permanent and with each successive month, Campbell gets further behind in payments on everything from her mortgage and utilities to her maxed out credit cards. With car repairs in excess of $1,500, fixing the car was not an option. Now her commute is two hours each way to a job she hates which doesn’t pay her a living wage.
“Everyone says that most Americans are just one paycheck away from financial disaster,” she says. “When I lost my job, my life fell apart within a few months. A cat got sick, my water heater died, I needed a dental procedure. I could have managed to pay for those things with my old job. I couldn’t manage one of them, now. I’m in a constant state of anxiety and I see no way out. My biggest fear is that I can’t keep up my mortgage payments and I’ll end up homeless.”
Presidential candidates talk a lot about America’s middle class—lifting them up, preserving their status, giving them tax breaks and tax credits. “Middle-class families” is a phrase endemic to the current race for the Democratic nomination and one that Trump uses to affirm how well the economy is doing under his tenure.
But what about America’s poverty class? In 2017, 46.2 million people—the majority of them women—lived in poverty. Some put the numbers even higher at 50 million. Scholars of the issue note that millions more are living in “near poverty,” putting the numbers closer to 100 million, or nearly a third of the population.
More people are living in poverty now than in the 1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson created the most sweeping actions against poverty in American history. Johnson’s War on Poverty created Medicaid, Medicare, SNAP, Head Start, and numerous other programs that would have Republicans shaking their fists and crying, “Socialism!” and centrist Democrats distancing themselves with equivocation. But in 2019, America needs another War on Poverty because women have become the new poverty class and are in dire straits. The question is, which politicians, if any, are willing to match Johnson’s bold initiatives that helped millions of Americans?
Marisa Reyes still tears up when she talks about what she calls “my year on the street.” At 26, Reyes “crashed out” of graduate school and into poverty within “what felt like five minutes” after a sexual assault by a fellow grad student that left her emotionally shattered and “unable to be on that campus when he was still there.”
Now 29 and an adjunct professor in a New England college town, Reyes’s life is only marginally improved. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, Reyes wants to know why “no one ever talks about poverty in this country. It’s like a dirty secret that we aren’t supposed to expose,” she says. “Yet every woman I know is one or two steps from the street. And I was on the street. Not literally—but I was homeless, living on the largesse of friends who let me stay in their spare room or on their sofa or even on the floor, just to help me stay off the actual street, until I could get my life back on track.”
While the media usually presents single mothers as the face of poverty, over half of all poor adult women, like Campbell and Reyes—54 percent—are single and childless. Both also have advanced degrees. Campbell is white, Reyes is Filipina. As Reyes says, “From my résumé, you would think I would have money. Instead, I live in a studio apartment, don’t have health insurance and haven’t been to a dentist in two years. Once you crash land into poverty, even for a little while, it’s almost impossible to get back out. I was actually one of the lucky ones in that I got back to school, finished my degree and got a job right away—even though being an adjunct is a poverty wage—something else we don’t talk about, white-collar poverty. But I can’t help thinking about how many women never get their lives back together. What about those women?”
What is the poverty level and what does it mean to live in poverty? The federal poverty level is $12,490 for a single person, and $25,750 for a family of four. Poverty wages include anything $12 or under per hour. Poverty also entails lack of access to resources from rudimentary basics like food and shelter to clothing and health insurance.
Who are the women living in poverty or near poverty in America? Statistically they are women working at minimum-wage jobs, seniors living on fixed incomes, and wage earners like Campbell who are suddenly out of work. Urban poverty is common, 17 percent in most cities, and suburban poverty has become more prevalent, which means metro areas (which include a city and surrounding suburbs) now have higher overall rates of poverty. Rural poverty may be the worst in the nation, with states like New Mexico, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, and Arkansas in the bottom tier, with more than 20 percent of residents living at or below the poverty level. In many rural areas in the U.S., women are coping with extremes of poverty that include not just food insecurity and housing and medical crises, but even lack of running water.
According to U.S. Census figures, poverty rates for women are significantly higher than for men. While the numbers for men have remained stable or declined over the past decade, they have risen steadily for women. Those numbers are staggering. Poverty does not strike all demographics equally. In 2017, 13.8 percent of men, and 16.8 percent of women lived in poverty. Heterosexual marriage (there are no data for same-sex marriage) offers economic stability: the poverty rate for heterosexual married couples in 2017 was only 5.1 percent—but the poverty rate for single-parent families with no wife was 13.1 percent, and for single-parent families with no husband, was 26.6 percent.
Elderly women are 80 percent more likely to live in poverty than men due to the wage gap, longevity and time spent out of the workforce to raise children. As women get older, they are also more likely to be in poverty: 17 percent of women between the ages of 70 and 79 and 22 percent of women 80 and older are in poverty.
More than one in eight women—that’s 16.3 million women—lived in poverty in 2017. More than two in five (45.6 percent) of these women lived in extreme poverty, as Reyes did, defined as income at or below 50 percent of the federal poverty level. This means one in 17 women lived in extreme poverty last year, living on $1.90 a day.
With two dozen Democrats vying to be the 2020 presidential nominee and women being the largest single voting demographic, women in poverty should be a major issue. Both Sanders and Warren are roundly seen as the most progressive candidates in the race and both regularly state that no one should be working and living in poverty. Yet neither Sanders nor Warren has a plan to address poverty beyond that political rhetoric. But despite Sen. Bernie Sanders’s well-trumpeted Democratic Socialism and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s much-touted “plan for everything” neither addresses poverty in their current platforms. Sanders’s Medicare for All plan would certainly impact the incomes of many Americans as medical debt remains the major cause of all personal bankruptcies, and his and Warren’s plans to end college debt would also reduce financial burdens, particularly on young people like Reyes, just starting out post-college. But neither speaks directly to poverty.
Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Cory Booker both have plans to address the rise in rents that are pricing people out of living spaces, but neither takes on poverty directly. Harris has her LIFT the Middle Class Act, but as the name states, its focus is the middle class. Harris regularly argues while campaigning that many Americans are just a $400 bill away from financial catastrophe, but while her plan to expand the Earned Income Credit of the tax code could potentially keep some families out of poverty, it’s not for those already suffering in poverty. Harris’s Rent Relief Act would help with the exorbitant rise in rents nationally. That could benefit those in poverty now. Harris has also created a broad-based plan to address the gender pay gap.
Two candidates who do have a focus on how close many Americans are to poverty are Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and financier Andrew Yang. Since 2009, Gillibrand has proposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, which she says would lift many women out of poverty. A central tenet of Yang’s candidacy is his “universal basic income” (UBI), a monthly payment of $1,000 to every adult in the country as a Freedom Dividend. But a closer look at Yang’s plan reveals that people would trade other current safety net programs—welfare assistance, food stamps, housing credits—for the UBI, which is potentially less than those programs. Gillibrand offers a federal-jobs guarantee that proposes women like Campbell would not languish jobless for months, but be ensured positions that would keep them from spiraling into poverty. Former Vice-President Joe Biden, the current frontrunner, has no current policy on poverty—just a long list of quotes about his positions over the years on his site.
According to the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy, Harris’s LIFT Act will have the most impact, with a full 3 percent of Americans—mostly female-headed households—benefiting and thus staying out of poverty. Booker’s HOME plan, similar to Harris’s RRA, would also benefit about 2 percent of Americans.
Abortion provides yet another poverty statistic that has yet to make headlines. The cost of an abortion can catapult a woman into poverty and recent studies show that nearly half of women who seek abortions live below the poverty level. Restrictions on abortion which have accrued over recent years as states have attempted various limitations on Roe v. Wade. Since May 2019, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, and Ohio have made abortion essentially illegal. In addition, other states have reduced the number of clinics, increasing the costs of abortion. Costs and what facilities charge women are very much determined by a state’s abortion policy. For example, 34 states require that women receive pre-abortion counseling, and 27 states have instituted a 24- to 48-hour waiting period between the counseling and the procedure. Fourteen states require in-person counseling.
This raises the cost of both the procedure itself and the costs to the woman who must travel more than once to the abortion clinic, according to MarketWatch. Restrictive state abortion laws may impose additional expenses on the providers of abortion in order to comply with the laws. As a consequence, restrictive state abortion laws may increase the price of an abortion, as abortion providers pass the additional costs of complying with the laws onto women seeking an abortion.
But this impact doesn’t stop at the clinic door. A 2018 study by the American Journal of Public Health found that women who were unable to access an abortion were more likely to experience poverty for years afterward. Six months after being denied an abortion, women were less likely to be employed full-time, more likely to be dependent on public assistance and more likely to be living in poverty. The study showed that women who were denied a wanted abortion had four times greater likelihood of having a household income below the federal poverty level and three times greater likelihood of being unemployed after six months.
Those who weren’t able to obtain an abortion were more likely to be living in poverty four years later; they were also less likely to have a full-time job and were more reliant on public assistance than women who received abortions.
Another aspect of female poverty is lack of what Forbes magazine calls “financial literacy”—the ability to manage one’s financial resources independently to ensure long-term financial security. Financial literacy—or lack thereof—also means that women are less likely to have control over finances in relationships, making it difficult for them to live separate from a spouse or boyfriend. Divorce can also jettison women into poverty: One in five women end up in poverty after a divorce. In 83 percent of divorces with children, primary custody goes to the mother. Stay-at-home moms may begin the divorce with no income, and they can’t recover from the financial hit. Even women who continued their careers after having children may decline advancement due to time constraints. Men are less likely to avoid advancing, giving them a better chance of a financially solid career. And women who are trying to escape domestic violence or sex trafficking are often controlled by men through money. Without money of their own, it can be impossible for women to escape their situations and become independent.
Low-income families are significantly more likely to have to contend with domestic violence, as poverty can fuel conflict, making poor women more susceptible to violence, which in turn makes them more dependent on their abuser financially. On average, women return to their abusive situation over seven times before ultimately becoming independent.
Domestic violence drove Talia Semenov to a women’s shelter in suburban Philadelphia—and into poverty. A Russian immigrant who had met her American husband through her synagogue, like many immigrant women, Semenov was isolated in her new surroundings. The aunt who had sponsored Semenov’s immigration had moved out of state to live with her son, leaving Semenov more dependent on her husband and his friends. When his controlling behavior turned abusive, Semenov didn’t know where to turn.
“My friends from work—I didn’t feel I could tell them,” says Semenov. “There is shame, even if you know this is not your fault.” She and her husband shared friends in common, and she couldn’t risk one of them talking to him. “I went on my lunch break to Starbucks and looked up what to do about abuse on the internet,” she says. “I was afraid to use my phone or the computer at home. He would check everything, all the time. You can’t know—such fear, all the time.”
One day Semenov went to work and didn’t come home. A volunteer from the shelter picked her up outside a nearby hospital where Semenov figured if her husband tracked her down and hurt her, at least she wouldn’t die. Now Semenov lives in a halfway house for abused women as she tries to restart her life. “It’s like prison, this way I have to live now,” she explains. “I am the victim, but he has everything, I have nothing. I’m not sure how many times I can start over. Coming here [to America] was hard. This is much harder, I think.”
While various circumstances can push a woman into poverty, most female poverty starts with the wage gap and lack of access to good-paying jobs for women. The majority of minimum-wage workers in America are women. The current minimum-wage is $7.25 an hour, putting anyone living on a full-time minimum wage job, such as housekeeping or restaurant work, below the poverty level, which is defined as $12 an hour.
In 2018, the Department of Health and Human Services set the federal poverty level at $24,600 for a family of four. That’s equivalent to $11.83 per hour for a full-time worker like Serena Ellsworth, who does fit the demographic most associated with women in poverty. She’s 32, Black, has two kids under the age of 10, and works as a nurse’s aide, a job that pays her $10 an hour, putting her well below the poverty level for a family of three. She’s on Medicaid, which she says is good because her young son has some health issues. Ellsworth also gets $200 a month in food stamps. “We always run out of food before the end of the month,” Ellsworth says. “It’s hard on the kids, but at least they get food at school.”
But perhaps not for long. The Trump administration has both altered nutrition standards for school lunches and cut back those programs. What’s more, in early May, the Trump administration proposed changes to inflation calculus that would result in cuts in federal aid to millions of poor Americans. The Trump proposal would alter the guidelines by which the Census Bureau estimates how many people are living at or below the poverty level. The standard also often determines eligibility for government benefits.
Of course, the plan wouldn’t actually reduce poverty—just raise the poverty levels so that fewer Americans qualify as poor, meaning fewer families like Ellsworth’s would get food assistance like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, a.k.a. food stamps), health assistance like Medicaid, and other government programs. Ellsworth says, “We would be homeless [without the SNAP benefits and Medicaid]. It’s that simple. We couldn’t afford the apartment and we would have nowhere to go but a shelter. It would be terrible for the kids. Just terrible.”
With millions of women in poverty or near poverty, how can they be helped? And what can presidential candidates do to highlight the issues of female poverty in America?
On May 20, Sen. Harris released a bold proposal that has the potential to lift a significant number of women out of poverty by closing the gender pay gap. It would require companies to disclose pay data and secure an “equal pay certification” or be fined. Harris’s proposal aims to shift the burden from workers, who now must prove pay discrimination by employers, to corporations, which would have to show they eliminated pay disparities between men and women doing work of equal value. “There should be a consequence to the corporation if they’re not paying people equally for equal work,” Sen. Harris told MSNBC on May 20. “Women deserve to be paid as much as men.” This would impact women at every level of the workforce.
One easy place to start is by raising the minimum wage which hasn’t seen even a nominal increase in a decade. The Fight for $15 promotes doubling the current minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. Since the majority of minimum-wage workers are women, that rise in minimum wage would benefit many women living in poverty due to low wages. Raising the minimum wage to $15 would lift pay for 40 million workers, altering their lives and those of their children. Senators Harris, Warren, Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper are all supporters. In fact, Hickenlooper proposed to raise it even higher in some cities: “Where living costs are higher, like New York, Los Angeles, and maybe Las Vegas, we will go above $15 an hour.”
What this single change would do for women cannot be understated. At present, minimum-wage workers must work longer hours just to achieve the standard of living that was considered near poverty when Johnson was president. Instead, because of policymakers’ failure to preserve basic labor standards, a woman who is the sole breadwinner for her family and who is earning the minimum wage today does not earn enough through full-time work to bring her family above the federal poverty line.
Raising the minimum wage to $15 would lift pay for 40 million workers, altering their lives and those of their children. Reyes puts it succinctly: “Raise my wage, you get my vote. But if you can’t say the word ‘poverty’ and acknowledge how many of us are living in it, you’re not really a Democrat, are you? I see nothing ‘democratic’ in ignoring millions of people struggling like I was—like I am—just to survive.”
The issues for candidates are clear: Women’s second-class status in society and in the marketplace has created a poverty class—hidden, struggling, desperate. For single mothers, that status extends to their children, who comprise a third of those living in poverty. By challenging the conditions that have coalesced to create that underclass of poor women, Democratic candidates could show poor women they matter, they are seen and most importantly, their lives will be improved. Perhaps in a crowded field vying for headlines, 2020 will be the year women in poverty become a voting bloc every candidate wants to win.
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