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NATIONAL | winter 2003

Poverty Up, Women Still Down
Burden continues to fall on single moms.

Ms. Winter 2003

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Life below the poverty line isn’t a statistical abstraction to Jane Eleey, project director for Pathways, PA—a Pennsylvania nonprofit that provides services to low-income women and their families. Each day she meets with clients who can’t afford basic necessities for themselves and their children. That means “skipping meals, losing housing and having their utilities cut off,” she says.

An additional 1.7 million Americans fell into such a position in the year 2002, according to a late-September report on poverty rates from the U.S. Census Bureau. On the surface, the bureau’s report was encouraging for women: Poverty rates remained relatively flat between 2001 and 2002 for households led by single women. But beyond the numbers lurks the unpleasant fact that single mothers continue to bear a disproportionate share of the poverty burden in the United States. While they represent only 17 percent of total households, the households led by single mothers comprise nearly half of those below the poverty line.

Vicky Lovell of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C., explains that recent initiatives to reduce poverty haven’t reached these women. “We have been successful at bringing other groups out of poverty—such as the elderly—but we haven’t been as successful for single moms and their children,” she says.

Single mothers face enormous barriers that keep them impoverished, particularly in times of a faltering economy. Often they rely on state-sponsored programs for assistance with child care, food and housing, but as state governments try to trim budget deficits, many of these programs have been reduced or eliminated. As Lacey Siegel of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS) points out, “What are single mothers going to do with their kids when an after-school program gets cut?”

A second obstacle is the recent change in the welfare system that pushes recipients to “get a job, any job,” says Lovell. The emphasis on finding immediate employment tends to be a shortsighted response to poverty because, as a study by CSS reveals, the kinds of jobs women must take usually involve “high turnover, low pay and few employer-provided benefits.”

Activists insist that helping women pull themselves out of poverty requires a more long-term approach: namely, improving women’s access to education. A high school diploma or college degree reduces the likelihood from 26.9 percent to just 4.6 percent that a family will fall below the poverty line.

But without government programs that provide support, single mothers get stuck in a double bind, says Eleey. They don’t have the skills to get more stable jobs, but they can’t afford the education and training necessary for stable jobs while taking care of their children. Until government programs address this central problem, the burden of poverty will continue to weigh most heavily on those for whom our society purports to have the most concern.

Understanding the Poverty Line

A four-person family earning $18,392 is considered poor, but one making $18,393 isn’t. How does the U.S. Census Bureau draw this line? The formula is surprisingly simple: Estimate the cost of food for a given year and multiply by three.

Why this formula? The answer has more to do with history than logic: In 1963 a researcher at the Social Security Administration needed a quick way to estimate poverty levels and reasoned that families usually spent a third of their annual income on food. The Lyndon B. Johnson administration adopted the formula, and no administration since has changed it.

Critics from the left and right agree that the calculation has flaws. For one, it doesn’t account for regional differences in living expenses—uptown Manhattan and rural Mississippi are considered to have the same poverty threshold. Also, the formula is based on the belief that families’ spending habits are dominated by the expense of food, but in recent years the costs of health care, housing and transportation have consumed a greater percentage of families’ budgets.

This year the Census Bureau has used an additional 15 formulas to determine poverty rates, factoring in geography, health care and non-cash benefits from government programs. The resulting calculations cause variations from 7.2 percent to 13 percent in the poverty rate. The Census Bureau argues that the alternative measurements “present a more mixed picture of the nation’s economic situation.” But readjusting statistics is unlikely to improve the condition of those 34.6 million people who live on poverty wages, still unable to afford basic necessities.