Gender, Inequality, Workers

Poverty among women in the United States: A primer

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(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

January 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous State of the Union address in which he declared an “unconditional war on poverty.” In the months following his remarks, Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, designed to attack the roots of poverty, primarily by establishing education and training programs to better prepare people for employment. Other provisions included work-study grants for students, assistance for needy children and loans to poor rural families.

Despite this and five decades of other efforts to combat poverty, a December 2013 report by the National Council for Research on Women, “Gender Lens on Poverty Primer,” indicates that the problem remains pervasive in the United States. In particular, the report notes that according to the U.S. Census, “since 1966, women across all age groups have been more likely to live in poverty.”

The report brings together data from a wide range of sources, including the National Women’s Law Center, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and academic papers. The report’s author, Rosa Cho, opens the paper by detailing the different categories of poverty, as well as the various ways to measure its prevalence. She highlights in particular the supplemental poverty measure, a tool developed in 2011 by the Census Bureau to better capture poverty rates. (The precise measurement of poverty remains a subject of some debate.)

Key findings cited in the report include:

  • Over the past 40 years the percentage of Americans living in poverty has ranged between a low of 11.1% (1973) and a high of 15.2% (1983), according to the Census Bureau. In 2012, the official poverty rate was 15%; the supplemental poverty measure rate was 16%.
  • For 2012 the Census Bureau indicated that the poverty rate was higher for women and girls than for men in every age group; for girls under 18 the rate was 22.3%, compared to 21.3% for boys; for women ages 18-64, it was 15.4% compared to 11.9% for men; for those over 65, it was 11% for women and 6.6% for men.
  • Analysis by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that unemployment rates are usually lower for women — for example, in November 2013 the rate for women was 6.2% compared to 6.7% for men — but women are more likely to work in low-wage industries.
  • According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, between 1993 and 2012 “the poverty gap between men and women was at the lowest in 2010, not because the women’s rate decreased but because the men’s rate increased.”
  • A 2013 report published by the National Women’s Law Center notes: “Communities of color were particularly vulnerable to poverty — rates among Native American women, African American and Latina women over the age of 18 were 34.4%, 25.1% and 24.8%, respectively.”

“Poverty, especially among women, can be reduced by devoting more financial resources to the safety-net programs that both prevent poverty and assist those who are already living in poverty,” the author concludes. Options include reducing the gender pay gap, increasing the minimum wage, and increasing affordable housing and access to quality childcare.

For related research, see recent posts on the work/life balance for women, women in the labor force, and women’s well-being in U.S. cities.

Keywords: women and work, poverty


By | January 10, 2014

Citation: Cho, Rosa. “Gender Lens on Poverty” National Council for Research on Women Primer, December 2013.

Analysis assignments

Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "The War on Poverty at 50."

  1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

Read the full study titled , "Gender Lens on Poverty Primer."

  1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
  2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
  3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
  4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
  5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

  1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
  2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
  3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
  4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
  5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
  6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

Class discussion questions

  1. What is the study’s most important finding?
  2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
  3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
  4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
  5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
  6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

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Waging war on poverty: Historical trends using the Supplemental Poverty Measure Journalist's Resource: Research for Reporting, from Harvard Shorenstein Center Jan 24, 2014 15:54

[…] States. The recession led to record levels of hardship, and research has shown that women often suffer disproportionately. But how one defines and thus measures “poverty” is central to the debate. The Census […]

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