The feminization of poverty

I was talking about gender in society in one of my classes, as one does, and got on the topic of women and poverty. When it comes to poverty, the world over, women tend to be more vulnerable – mostly because of children and family obligations. Also because of unequal work for equal pay. Also because society doesn’t value the work women are expected to do in their “spare time” – work like cooking and cleaning and making doctor’s appointments and being sure that their kids’ picture day forms are turned in on time (not to say men don’t do these things, but…yes to say that when they don’t get done, society’s stern eye turns straight to look at what the heck kind of deadbeat mom allows these things to slip, paying zero attention to the dad who also didn’t get it done).

Seventy percent of the world’s poor are women. And in the U.S., women were found to experience poverty at a rate 38% higher than that of men. Look at this chart – girls under 18 are doing okay. Everybody else, not so much.

Single-parent households are hit very hard with the poverty stick:

And it’s especially bad for non-white single mothers:

There’s so much to say here that I can’t possibly say it in one post, so many factors that make it harder for women to make ends meet and easier for them to get swept into poverty, so many ways that men can get societal approval for riding off into the sunset and leaving the women to pay for childcare and checkups, so many institutional barriers to making an equal wage or being treated equally as employed parents, so much time and money lost to terrible or non-existent maternity leave policies.

But instead I will say this: one of my students raised her hand and recounted how, when she was a senior in high school and her sister was a sophomore, her mother had a baby. Her mom got three weeks of paid time off, then had to go back to work because they couldn’t afford anything more. They also couldn’t afford child care. My student and her sister alternated days where they would go to school or stay home and take care of their newborn sister. Every other day of high school, erased because having babies wipes people – most often women – out.

Sometimes this whole philosophical movement seems so frivolous. “If you pay 0.01% fees on your investments, you’ll get rich so much faster than if you pay 4.2%!” Meanwhile, kids are losing their educations because their mothers have to go to work three weeks after a baby rips its way out of her body. “Give up your BMW for a Honda!” when a Honda is unimaginably fancy for many people. “I paid off $80,000 in debt in two years!” when that’s more salary than many families make in two years, and those families also have to juggle childcare.

At one point, when my brother first introduced me to the idea of FI, I told him I hated the philosophy – that it seemed to be a bunch of people patting themselves on the back for having advantages that put them ahead enough to get aheader even faster. He said, “doesn’t that mean that these tenets – like finding the best interest rate, cutting cable, etc. – would be the most helpful for the people without those advantages?”

And he’s right, in a way. I mean, he’s right. It helps everybody if we’re all talking about how to get a decent cell phone plan for $30 a month.

But so much of the conversation focuses on what we (the FI-minded) can do to get richer, not what we can do to make sure everybody can get richer. It’s so easy to get swept up in whether my student loan payment is going to jump by a hundred bucks a month and I’ll have to refigure my various extremely cheap loans. It’s so much harder to look at reality, the real reality, not just the fancy Honda-instead-of-BMW reality, and tackle the problems that really matter, and not just matter as in “I’ll retire six months earlier if I do this.”

Obviously I think about money, a lot. Obviously I try to optimize my lifestyle (while making tons of mistakes, obvs). Obviously me denigrating the Honda-instead-of-BMW statements doesn’t get me anywhere. But as we (the Fi-minded) are contemplating just how much we can squeeze out of every penny, it is critical that we (the people who have the resources and time to think about how to squeeze every dollar out of every penny) devote some of that contemplation to leveling the playing field.

2 thoughts on “The feminization of poverty”

  1. Your last chart chart shows that the least likely people to be poor are Asian and I think there are lots of cultural lessons to be learned there. It is easy to generalize whites as privileged people and attribute lower poverty rates to that, but most (if not all) of the Asian families that I know are first or second generation immigrants and I can’t remember a time in history when they were privileged in USA in any sense. However, what they lack in privilege is what they have in their cultural upbringing and it is what likely puts them ahead in that chart.

    This is the main quality which I noticed in the Asian families I know: They stick together as a family – parents supporting children and children supporting parents throughout the life. The support goes even farther – to first uncles/aunts and cousins. Maybe the parents that immigrated here had minimum wage jobs and were not around the house much, but they lived in a tiny studio apartment and skimped and saved and enabled their children to get better education and better jobs. Then at some point instead of 2 adults earning minimal wage, you have 3 or 4 adults working and saving all the extra money to buy their first property. And then when one of the kids needs to move out (one usually stays with the parents), they pull their savings as a family to get enough for that second downpayment. And if at anytime someone looses a job or has a hard time, the whole family is there to help out and keep the troubled person afloat and out of the poverty. And it all started with 2 people who came to USA with nothing, didn’t speak English and worked minimal wages jobs throughout their lives. And this is not a single story. I live in a Asian rich part of the USA and see examples like this all the time.

    So what I wanted to say is that people CAN grow wealth, even when they start underprivileged with nothing. It might not be easy and it definitely takes lots of sacrifices but it certainly CAN be done. And I feel that’s the message people should be hearing.


    1. I don’t disagree that people can develop wealth over time – but I fundamentally disagree that it is always a possibility if one just tries hard enough. What you have noted is really important: the safety net. For the most advantaged stories of FI, you almost always hear “and then I moved in with my parents.” And for the least advantaged, there is still nearly always a safety net (parents, relatives, etc). What happens when you are the safety net? A single mother without any net doesn’t have the option to rely on others to accumulate support together, and a child raised in that kind of poverty, without support, ends up dropping out of college because he worked hard to get there and earned scholarships, but then his mom had a stroke and there is nobody else to take care of her (ask me how I know this). It’s confirmation bias to look at wealthy people, see their positive attributes, and assume that if other people would take on those same attributes, they, too, would become rich.

      It’s just not (the same level of) possible for all people.


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