Feminist Explanations for the Feminization of Poverty

By Pressman, Steven | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Feminist Explanations for the Feminization of Poverty


Pressman, Steven, Journal of Economic Issues


It is well known that women are much more likely to be poor than men. This is true in the United States (Pearce 1978; Pressman 1988) and in most developed nations (Casper, McLanahan, and Garfinkel 1994; Pressman 2002). But the causes of this phenomenon remain a matter of dispute. In a previous paper (Pressman 2002), I examined demographic and human capital explanations for the feminization of poverty and found them both lacking in empirical support. Instead, the impact of fiscal policy on the distribution of income was found to be the main reason that women in the United States are more likely to be poor than women in other countries.

This paper looks at two feminist explanations for the feminization of poverty. First, there is the issue of household structure. Parenthood, it is well known, leads to lower earnings for women (Budig and England 2001; Folbre 1987; Waldfogel 1997). There are many reasons for this. Female parents will have care-giving responsibilities for their children. This takes away from the time that they have available to earn incomes. It may also prevent women from taking jobs that require longer hours and substantial travel. These jobs, of course, are likely to come with higher pay. Furthermore, families headed by a single mother are likely to have just one adult earner. This not only reduces household income but also makes household income susceptible to large fluctuations as a result of either a bad labor market or bad luck. When there is only one earner and that earner gets laid off, gets sick, or gets reduced hours due to an economic slowdown, the household is more likely to wind up in poverty because there is no on e else in the household who can make up for the lost income.

Second, there is the issue of occupational sex segregation. If women are systematically excluded from higher-paying occupations, their wages and incomes will be lower than the wages of men (Bergmann 1986; Hudson and England 1986; Zellner 1972). In a series of controlled experiments, Rich and Riach (1995) found that women were systematically excluded from higher-paying jobs at the same time that men were excluded from lower-paying jobs. Because women are relegated to poorly paying jobs, households headed by women should stand a greater chance of being poor.

This paper seeks to examine whether either household structure or occupational sex segregation can help explain the relatively high poverty rates experienced by female-headed families. It should be noted that these are not two separate and distinct theses. Single motherhood may relegate women to certain low-paying occupations; likewise, occupational sex segregation may reduce the opportunities women have to meet men who might become their partner.

The empirical work below relies on the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS), an international database containing comparable socioeconomic data for more than two dozen nations. (1) Poverty is defined as having an adjusted household disposable income that is less than 50 percent of the median adjusted disposable income of one's country. (2) Income adjustments are necessary when measuring poverty to account for different income needs of households of different sizes. In the empirical work that follows we use the household adjustments suggested by Ruggles 1990, where household disposable income is divided by the square root of the number of people in the household. (3)

Gender Poverty Gaps

Table 1 presents data on poverty rates for female-headed households (FHHs) and all other households whose head is under 60 years old. I focus exclusively on non-elderly households in order to net out the impact of national retirement systems on my results. If the problem facing FHHs is occupational sex segregation, we need to restrict our attention to women who are employed rather than collecting retirement income. In many developed countries, eligibility for retirement programs begins at about the age of 60 (Blondal and Pearson 1995, table 6). …

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