This paper reviews trends in "feminization" and "juvenilization" of poverty showing that the relative risks of poverty increased for women in the 1970s but decreased for working-age women in the early 1980s. Relative risks of poverty increased for children between the 1970s and 1990s particularly in comparison with the elderly. Four factors affect these trends: First, the Increase in women's employment and decline In the gender wage gap enhanced the likelihood that women remained above the poverty level. Second, the decline in manufacturing employment and "family wage" jobs for men Increased the likelihood that less-educated men (and their families) fell into poverty in the early 1980s. These two factors combined to halt the feminization of poverty among the working-age population. At the same time, a third trend, the Increase In "nonmarriage," elevated the proportion of single parents who were young, never-married mothers and complicated the collection of child support from nonresident fathers. This tended to concentrate poverty in mother-child families. Finally, public transfers of income, especially Social Security, were far more effective in alleviating poverty among the elderly than among children, a factor dramatically Increasing the "Juvenilization" of poverty after 1970.
KEY WORDS: poverty, gender, children, inequality, family
Poverty in the United States is a serious problem for women and children particularly those in single-parent families. However, assessing trends in the "feminization" and "juvenilization" of poverty turns out to be a trickier business than it might at first seem. First, are "feminization" and "juvenilization" best assessed by trends in the percentage of the poverty population that is female (or juvenile), by the absolute poverty rates of women and children, or by the relative risks of poverty for different groups (i.e., men versus women, adults versus children)? Second, what factors are implicated in the heightened poverty levels of women and children, and what factors seem to be correlated with changes over time in their relative risks of poverty? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what are the effects of poverty, particularly for those who grow up poor? This chapter reviews the empirical evidence and research literature in an attempt to shed light on each of these questions.
The Feminization of Poverty: The Case of Adult Women
The term "feminization of poverty" was coined by Diana Pearce in a 1978 article in Urban and Social Change Review in which she argued that poverty was "rapidly beaming a female problem" and that women accounted "for an increasingly large proportion of the economically disadvantaged" (Pearce 1978:28). Pearce lamented an irony-during the same period that women's employment increased dramatically and affirmative action legislation enhanced opportunities for women in educational institutions and the labor force, their likelihood of living in poverty was increasing relative to men.
What was the evidence for the "feminization of poverty"? Pearce noted that in 1976, two of three poor adults were women; that female-headed families were increasing rapidly, and that the number of poor female-headed families doubled between 1950 and 1974.(1) She also suggested that female-headed families were losing ground vis-a-vis families with an adult male present in the household, noting that the ratio of income in female-headed families to other families had declined between 1950 and 1974. In a later piece, Pearce suggested that if trends continued, nearly all the poor would be living in femaleheaded families by the year 2000 (Pearce 1988:514).
Usage of the term "feminization of poverty" quickly became widespread. The picture of impoverished women and children captured public attention-especially the paradox that while women attempted to improve their lot vis-a-vis men, they were losing ground. Some blamed women's own choices, particularly their eschewing of marriage, for their plight (Murray 1984), whereas others saw women as merely victims of a cruel hoax, equality without the means of self-sufficiency (Pearce 1978, 1988). All sides seemed to accept the fact that poverty was increasingly becoming a woman's problem and that something detrimental was happening to single mothers and their children.
From the beginning, what the term "feminization" meant and to whom it referred were not always clear. Did "feminization" merely mean that the number of poor females exceeded the number of poor males, or did it imply that women's poverty rates were higher than men's? With respect to poverty rates, did feminization imply that the absolute likelihood of living in poverty was higher for women than men or was the concept about the relative poverty risks (i.e., the ratio of women's to men's poverty rates)? Finally, was the "feminization of poverty" about the chances of living in poverty among adult women, or was it about the heightened likelihood of poverty among those who lived in mother-child families-particularly children, male as well as female children? Statistics cited to support the feminization of poverty tended to blur these distinctions. Oft quoted figures, such as the percentage of the poor who were female or the proportion of poor families that were female headed (e.g., Shortridge 1984: Figure 1), gave little evidence of how big a problem poverty was for women (as opposed to men) or how much the problem was intensifying. One of the statistics cited by Pearce (1978:128), that 70% of the aged poor were women, seemed shocking. Yet, given women's longer life expectancy, without information on how many of the aged were women,(2) or the percentages of men and women elderly who lived in poverty, it was difficult to know how concentrated poverty was among older women or whether things were getting worse for them relative to older men (McLanahan et al 1989).
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In an attempt to more systematically assess trends in poverty for women and men, McLanahan, Sorenson, & Watson (1989) argued that "feminization of poverty" conveyed the notion that the risks of poverty were rising for women relative to men-that rather than examining how many poor women there were for every poor man, one needed to examine poverty rates for women and men and assess feminization by the trend in the ratio of women's to men's poverty rates. From their analysis of female/male poverty ratios, McLanahan, Sorenson & Watson (1989) concluded that poverty was indeed feminizing between 1950 and 1980: Among adult whites and blacks, at all ages, the ratio of women's to men's poverty rates increased during the period. Among whites, women's poverty rates were 10% higher than men's in 1950, but almost 50% higher by 1980. The rise was especially dramatic for those over age 65: Elderly women's poverty rates were 13% higher than men's in 1950 but climbed to 76% higher by 1980. Trends were similar for blacks, though increases in relative risks were not quite as extreme and changes tended to lag those for whites.
Although Pearce had not been systematic in measuring poverty, McLanahan et al's analysis (1989) confirmed Pearce's assessment of the trend: Women's risks of poverty relative to men's had increased during the 1950s, 1960s, and, to a lesser extent, during the 1970s. Ironically, or so it seemed, this increase in relative risks was taking place as women surged into the labor force, the women's movement took hold, and affirmative action legislation was enacted.
A different paradox was not much noted in the "feminization of poverty" literature, however. At the same time women's relative risks of poverty were increasing, their absolute risks of poverty were declining fairly substantially. This was particularly true for elderly women: As white elderly women's relative risks of poverty climbed from 1.13 to 1.76 those of men, their absolute poverty levels declined from 62% poor in 1950 to 15% poor in 1980 (McLanahan et al 1989: Table 2). Yet because poverty rates were lower for elderly men in 1950-and declined at an even faster pace-elderly women's relative position deteriorated.(3)
The "feminization of poverty" was noted in the 1970s, studied in the decade that followed, and then largely assumed to persist and given little empirical attention after the mid-1980s. Attention turned increasingly to the plight of children in poverty and the relative poverty risks for children who lived with one versus two parents. Only recently have two studies, one by England (1997) and another by McLanahan & Kelly (1997), carried forward the analysis of trends in the relative poverty of women and men. The results are somewhat surprising.
Figure 1 uses annual Current Population Survey (CPS) data to plot threeyear moving averages of the ratio of women's to men's poverty rates. Data are for all women, age 18 and older, and for three age groups (18-29, 30-64, and 65 years and over). There are year-to-year fluctuations in the overall ratio, but the trend between 1968 and the late 1970s is upward: Women's poverty rates were 55% higher than men's in 1968 and climbed until they peaked at 72% higher than men's in 1978. Poverty was clearly feminizing. During the early 1980s, the ratio dropped substantially. In the recessionary years of the early 1980s, women's poverty rates remained higher than men's but dropped from 72% to 47% higher.(4)
After the mid-1980s, the poverty ratio was above the level of the early 1980s but lower than during the 1970s. Women's poverty rates tended to fluctuate between 50% and 60% higher than men's (rising with the economic recovery of the late 1980s but falling again in the 1990s.)
The rates for all women, shown in Figure 1, mask differing trends by age, however. England (1997) and McLanahan & Kelly (1997) present figures that suggest that poverty has continued to feminize among very young women (those under age 25) and among elderly women (over age 65). However, among those in the prime working ages, the ratio of women's to men's poverty rates has declined (McLanahan & Kelly 1997: Table 1; England 1997: Table 4). The CPS data plotted in Figure 1 suggest that poverty ratios of working age women to men (age 30 to 64) were relatively stable in the 1970s and then declined from 1.60 in 1980 to 1.39 in 1996.
On the other hand, the ratio of female poverty rates to male rates for those over age 65 rose from 1.43 to 2.09 between 1968 and 1996. That is, the only group of women to record continued improvement in terms of declining absolute poverty rates in the 1980s and 1990s-the elderly-was also the group to witness continued and substantial "feminization" of poverty. The divergence between the trend in the absolute poverty levels of women and the trend in their poverty rates relative to men requires some circumspection about measures as well as the interpretations we attach to the notion of the "feminization of poverty."
The Feminization of Poverty: The Case of Mother-Child Families
Perhaps it was hyperbole, but Pearce (1988) suggested a decade ago that the United States was headed in the direction of having all its poor living in female-headed families by the end to the century. That has not happened. In 1994, of the 38.1 million persons officially in poverty, about 14.4 million, or 38%, lived in families with a female householder, no husband present. An additional 5.0 million poor individuals were women who lived alone or with nonrelatives. About 57% of the total number in poverty were females (US Bureau of the Census, 1996).
Nonetheless, there are grounds for asserting that poverty is increasingly concentrated in mother-child families. As the number of persons living in mother-only families has grown, so also has the proportion of the poor who are in these families. In 1966, only about one fourth of the members of poor families lived in mother-child families, compared with more than 50% by the latter 1990s. But as noted in the previous …