New Poverty: Families in Postmodern Society

By David Cheal | Go to book overview

4
Marriage and Its Aftermath

The risk of poverty among women has often depended heavily on the nature of their relationships with men. When males are by convention the breadwinners for their families, it is only through relationships with men that women can gain access to a regular income. Even in societies where women are heavily involved in paid employment, women's earnings are often so much below those of men that there are significant advantages to be gained from sharing men's wages. That is especially true for women with children. Marriage has therefore traditionally been considered essential for the economic security of mothers and children. Mothers without husbands are financially vulnerable today, as they were a century ago. However, the cause of their vulnerability has changed.

Census data for the U.S. population in 1900 show that 77.2 percent of female-headed sole-parent households were headed by widows ( Gordon & McLanahan, 1991). In contrast, U.S. Consumer Expenditure Survey data for 1992 show that only 9.4 percent of consumer units headed by a sole support mother were headed by a widow. The majority, that is, 63.2 percent, of these units was headed by separated or divorced women. In the 1990s it is not death but the breakdown of relationships that disrupts marriages and leaves mothers and children at risk of falling into poverty.

At the end of the nineteenth century, there was much concern about poverty among unmarried females. This concern was prompted by the number of women who were left as widows after the premature deaths of

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