The good news first: The United States has made unquestionable progress in fighting poverty since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on it in 1964. The number of Americans living in destitution has fallen by more than one-third over the last half-century. We may never fully eliminate poverty, but its depth and prevalence have diminished.
Now, the bad news: The speed of our progress has been slowing in recent years, and the number of Americans who live below the poverty line stood at 43 million as of 2015. That so many of us have difficulty meeting daily basic needs should be considered a moral failure in a country as rich as ours.
And a story that appeared in last Monday’s edition of the Observer-Reporter by Adrianne Uphold pointed out how women specifically shoulder the burdens of poverty, both locally and nationally. Numbers provided by the U.S. Census Bureau found that, between 2013 and 2017, the number of women living below the poverty line was almost double that of men in Washington County. The picture is much the same in Greene, Allegheny and Fayette counties, and other counties in the Pittsburgh region.
In fact, it’s the same across Pennsylvania and the country as a whole.
A portion of the women who are dealing with poverty are single mothers who face high child-care costs, and are left with no other option but to stay home because they can’t afford to place their children in daycare. Many women also end up in a catch-22 where they would like to get a job, yet are worried that they won’t earn enough to substantially improve their lot, but would earn just enough that they would be nudged off government assistance programs.
Julie Marx-Lally of the nonprofit advocacy group Pennsylvania Women Work told Uphold, “Once (women are) getting help for low-income housing, or food, they’re scared to earn even a dollar or two more because they might not qualify for certain assistance programs. It’s not because they’re lazy, not at all; it’s because they’re afraid of making more money because a dollar or two isn’t going to raise them out of poverty, but it will cut them off from programs that help put food on the table for their family.”
Other factors that keep women in poverty include the persistent gap in what men and women earn, with men tending to earn $1.34 for every dollar a woman earns; women having to care for family members, such as elderly parents; domestic violence and abuse; the costs associated with pregnancy; and a social safety net that is less generous than most other developed nations, and provides nothing in the way of unemployment benefits for people who lose part-time jobs.
Organizations like City Mission in Washington can help with housing and child care needs, and Pennsylvania Women Work can help women find employment. There needs to be a greater effort across the country to strengthen the safety net, raise wages, lower the cost of child care and enhance job training programs so women can find and keep family-supporting jobs.
That so many more women than men are struggling illustrates that we have more work to do in eliminating poverty. It also shows that we have a great deal of heavy-lifting to do when it comes to gender equality.