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BACKTALK | winter 2006

Poverty is a Woman's Issue

The 2005 hurricane season demonstrated that nature wreaks havoc with impartiality. Hurricane Katrina’s dramatic winds destroyed beautiful lakefront resorts, Gulf Coast mansions and profitable seaside casinos with the same gale force as those which ravaged shotgun houses and public housing where some of America’s poorest citizens lived.

While nature may treat us all equally, however, the recent hurricanes confirmed that society does not. Racial and economic inequalities briefly came to the fore as the faces of New Orleans’ chronically poor citizens filled our TV screens, but then those images were too easily brushed aside when the next news cycle rolled in. Congress made noise that it was going to investigate the impact of the hurricanes on its Gulf Coast victims, then sadly turned its attention to other matters.

Since Congress and the Bush administration continue to ignore the millions of Americans living below the poverty line, it is essential that the women’s movement make the eradication of chronic poverty a top priority. We must have a frank conversation about what it means to be poor in America and what we can do to alleviate the suffering of the women and men who work two or three minimum-wage jobs just to make ends meet.

Women’s voices should lead this debate since the burdens of poverty fall unevenly on us. Of the 37 million poor people in this country, 21 million are women. Many of them head single-parent households, which are four and a half times more likely to be impoverished than two-parent households.

In the Gulf Coast region, the poverty gap runs even deeper. In my hometown of New Orleans, an astonishing 26 percent of women live under the federal poverty line, nearly double the national average. Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas—the three states hit hardest during the 2005 hurricane season—rank above the 85th percentile in the U.S. with respect to women living in poverty.

Many of these women, including some members of my family, lack health insurance, cannot find affordable housing and cannot pay for the child care that would allow them to improve their education and find better work. The Gulf Coast disasters brought to light the struggles poor families face in order to survive; it is now incumbent upon us to remove the barriers that keep so many people trapped at the bottom of the economic ladder.

An important step toward lessening poverty is to ensure that women take part in every aspect of rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Women must move past the disheartening statistics that foster our identity as victims and instead become active agents for change. If women take a seat at the table when decisions are made, we can promote an agenda that includes fair wages, affordable housing, jobs, quality and affordable child care, and other policies that would enable us to work toward a permanent solution rather than a temporary fix.

Providing a living wage is critical. Since poor families are hurt when their members go without having basic needs and standards of care met, we must hold government accountable for its pledge to promote strong and stable families.

And women need more than a temporary raise in wages—they must be trained for quality jobs that will raise permanent earning potential and continue to keep them and their families afloat. Too often women are forced into low-paying jobs because they lack sufficient skills, and they overlook well-paid occupations traditionally held by men, such as the construction trades, because they lack training. Getting women the training they need to break into higher- paying jobs would interrupt the cycle of poverty.

The national discussion of chronic poverty must address the fact that since September 11 this country has focused attention on eradicating terrorism to the exclusion of serious domestic threats, such as the lack of affordable health care. America can do better. We owe it to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita to once again summon the nation to eradicate poverty. During this election season, which will set the stage for the next presidential contest, we must hold our elected officials accountable. It’s time we force a conversation about reducing poverty in America and provide the underpaid and underemployed with the tools they need to rebuild their lives.

Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).