a bird and a bottle


On the Feminization of Poverty

No sooner had I apologized for focusing so much on criminal justice recently, did the Supreme Court drop the Gonzales ruling on us, and this blog became all feminist talk all the time. Today I’m getting back to our regularly scheduled programming, though I’ll write more about the federal abortion ban as articles surface.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about poverty. Specifically, why it is that we talk so little about it in an incredibly wealthy country with staggering numbers of people living in poverty. Part of it is certainly a strange American “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. I say strange because that mentality fails to take into account the myriad reasons that people may not have bootstraps — or the strength or resources with which to use them.

There’s also the racism that is inextricable from poverty in the U.S. — too big a topic to explore in a quick pre-study group blog post. But there’s another reason we don’t talk about poverty — because more and more it’s seen as a women’s issue, and not one that large national groups are taking up.

Turns out, according to an article in AlterNet yesterday, that 70% of those living in poverty around the world are women. Most of these women are caregivers, whose work has been estimated to be worth $100,000/year each. But of course, they’re not paid. As a result of this, in the U.S. at least, women over 65 are twice as likely to live in poverty as men in the same age range.

Poverty is not only limited to older women. According to UNFPA:

Worldwide, women on average earn slightly more than 50 per cent of what men are earning. Poverty is particularly destructive of women’s health, especially their reproductive and sexual health: women and girls are often the last to eat; women’s health problems are considered less important than other family priorities; girls may be sold into prostitution; and mothers sometimes are forced to sell their bodies just to be able to feed their children.

Though the UNFPA report focuses on third world countries, the same language could be used to describe the situation in the U.S.; perhaps in the U.S. the problem should be considered worse. The government here has the money to do something about poverty and about the number of women and children living in it. But they don’t. Instead, they turn a blind eye, and speak in grand generalizations that sound humane but are both hollow and notable in what they don’t include. Justice Kennedy’s wrongheaded decision in Gonzales on Wednesday included this little snippet:

The government may use its voice and its regulatory authority to show its profound respect for the life within the woman. A central premise of the opinion was that the Court’s precedents after Roe had “undervalue[d] the State’s interest in potential life.” 505 U. S., at 873 (plurality opinion); see also id., at 871. The plurality opinion indicated “[t]he fact that a law which serves a valid purpose, one not designed to strike at the right itself, has the incidental effect of making it more difficult or more expensive to procure an abortion cannot be enough to invalidate it.” Id., at 874. This was not an idle assertion. The three premises of Casey must coexist. See id., at 846 (opinion of the Court). The third premise, that the State, from the inception of the pregnancy, maintains its own regulatory interest in protecting the life of the fetus that may become a child, cannot be set at naught by interpreting Casey’s requirement of a health exception so it becomes tantamount to allowing a doctor to choose the abortion method he or she might prefer.

This passage, like so many others in the decision, pays lip service to the Court’s respect for — indeed, protection of — life. But, also like the rest of the opinion, it’s not women’s lives with which the Court is concerned. Do you see where I am going with this? We live in a country that is proud of its so-called culture of life. But in the hierarchy of whose lives matter, women continue to fall at the bottom. The Supreme Court’s decision this week was the most recent – and perhaps most disturbing – example of this. The fact that poverty persists at such levels even as it continue to become a women’s problem (or perhaps particularly so) is another stark reminder of the little respect US lawmakers have for women and for women’s health.

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11 Comments so far
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Except that the one part you ignore is that many women do not work, but are provided for by their husbands/boyfriends. True, women and children are no longer aided by the men and sometimes live in poverty, but is it really fair to say that is the case in the US? The standard of living here, except for the poorest of the poor, is lightyears ahead of anywhere else.

Comment by thelonedrifter

Most of these women are caregivers, whose work has been estimated to be worth $100,000/year each.

I haven’t read the study that got that figure, but I’ve read a news article describing it. It’s just not true. First, it overblows the number of hours the average American woman spends on household labor; for example, whenever her husband has friends or coworkers over, it considers her to be working as an entertainer. That way it concludes that an American woman who doesn’t work outside home spends 90 hours a week doing household labor while a woman who does work spends 45. In fact, in developed countries, including the US, women average about 30-35 hours a week doing household labor.

And second, in calculating how much pay women deserve, the study deliberately skews upward the amount of pay people who work outside home in comparable jobs make. For example, it uses the wage of a cook instead of this of a maid. It even applies overtime to any work beyond the first 40 hours, which hardly anyone in the US gets nowadays.

Most of the household labor housewives do is in fact replicated by maids, which suggests the actual market worth of their work is closer to $10,000 a year than to 100,000.

More to the point, this just makes no sense:

The third premise, that the State, from the inception of the pregnancy, maintains its own regulatory interest in protecting the life of the fetus that may become a child, cannot be set at naught by interpreting Casey’s requirement of a health exception so it becomes tantamount to allowing a doctor to choose the abortion method he or she might prefer.

I presume that in the oral arguments, some pro-life activist started going on about the gory details of D&X. The procedure isn’t something pleasant for the doctor; on the contrary, it’s gruesome and doctors would rather not use it.

Doctors don’t perform D&X abortions out of convenience; they do because D&X is safer than hysterectomy and D&E, and less inconvenient for the woman.

That, and the “regulatory interest in protecting the life of the fetus that may become a child” is inconsistent with a D&X ban. Although D&X is the safest and most common method of performing late-term abortion, it’s not the only one. Governments have no stake in choosing the method of abortion, and the snippet you quoted admits that by omission. If anything, there’s a state interest in regulating the number of weeks in which abortion can be performed. But Congress didn’t submit a bill prohibiting post-viability abortion, or setting a limit at 24 weeks; it merely prohibited the safest late-term procedure.

Comment by Alon Levy

Alon – that number was quoted in the article. And I think you make a good point. But I take issue with this part of your comment:

First, it overblows the number of hours the average American woman spends on household labor; for example, whenever her husband has friends or coworkers over, it considers her to be working as an entertainer. That way it concludes that an American woman who doesn’t work outside home spends 90 hours a week doing household labor while a woman who does work spends 45. In fact, in developed countries, including the US, women average about 30-35 hours a week doing household labor.

I haven’t read the study you quote either, but i think the $100K figure is concerned not with the average American woman but with the average stay at home caregiver. I’m guessing that the number of hours spent on housework and caregiving is higher for these women than for the average American woman who works outside the home.

regarding your crticism of Kennedy’s language: yes, you’re 100% right.

Comment by bean

lonedrifter – i don’t ignore it. that’s exactly the point. Many women don’t work outside the home which is a major contributor to their poverty. Valuing work in the home is one way that’s been suggested to confront this.

Comment by bean

Okay, I guess I missed that. Valuing it is difficult. I’m in high school, and the work that my mother does is way off the charts, but how would you value it? And you can’t really pay them anything for it, because it’s providing a capitalist service to their family, or really themselves. It’d be nice if they got paid, yeah, but is it practical?

Comment by thelonedrifter

I haven’t read the study you quote either, but i think the $100K figure is concerned not with the average American woman but with the average stay at home caregiver. I’m guessing that the number of hours spent on housework and caregiving is higher for these women than for the average American woman who works outside the home.

Yeah, it is, but it’s still not 90 hours a week. Last year the New York Times ran a story about it; American women who don’t work outside the home average 44 hours a week on household work, women who do average 24, men who don’t average 23, and men who do average 16.

Valuing work in the home is one way that’s been suggested to confront this.

It could work… but then again, men and women tend to perform different kinds of household labor. So any effort to recognize household work will inevitably cause people to glorify men who fix leaky roofs once in a few months and ignore women who cook and clean every day.

Comment by Alon Levy

A number of months ago, the NYTimes ran a piece on the number of hours parents spend with their children and doing housework: today and thirty odd years ago. Surprisingly, the number of hours spent with children remained nearly constant for women and shot up with men; the number of hours doing housework, however, dropped remarkably for women. What was not mentioned – but clearly implied – is that families that can afford it now have cleaning ladies (and very rarely men) take care of the housework so that both parents can work more and spend more time with the kids. In sum, I feel that in America this is a class issue much more than a gender issue. (Women in America earn about 80 cents on the male dollar; that’s substantially less than Australia, but a lot more than 50 cents on the dollar worldwide.) I would much prefer to be an American woman than the undocumented immigrant male who does her gardening.

Comment by professorplum

Prof Plum – I agree that in the U.S. the issue may be one of class, but I think that’s in addition to sex, not in place of it. Being an undocumented immigrant is no doubt a more disempowered place than being a white middle-class woman. The question is this: why is it that poverty around the world is becoming a woman’s issue? Has it always been?

Comment by bean

I don’t know if globally poverty has always been feminized, but in the US it’s a post-1960s trend. Before then, there were hardly any single mothers, and poverty affected entire nuclear families (covering 25% of the population, I should add).

If you look at the actual details, those good old days when poverty was not yet feminized don’t look so good. Leaving aside the total poverty rate, dysfunctional families headed by abusive men remained intact because the women had nowhere to go. Even when they were not poor, those women saw little of their husbands’ salaries. Once the 1960s rolled in and women first got the choice to delay childbirth and marriage, and in the next decade also the choice to leave their abusive husbands, they opted for poverty over abuse.

Of course, this doesn’t explain why poverty is now feminized, only why it wasn’t back in the good old days when those women’s children walked to school ten miles in five feet of snow, uphill both ways, because their fathers were too unconcerned with their well-being to drive them to school…

Comment by Alon Levy

[…] I really can’t believe we’re still fighting about this. I can’t believe that the science has been twisted so far and that women are hated so much that we would deny rape victims a pill that could — if offered promptly — help prevent an unwanted pregnancy. But I should expect this at this point…it’s just another example of the ironically pro-abortion “pro-life” agenda. Culture of life my ass. […]

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