Gender Poverty Disparity in US Cities: Evidence Exonerating Female-Headed Families

By Lichtenwalter, Sara | Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Gender Poverty Disparity in US Cities: Evidence Exonerating Female-Headed Families


Lichtenwalter, Sara, Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare


Utilizing data from the 2000 Census, this study examines the impact of family composition, education, and labor force factors on the difference between female and male poverty rates in the 70 largest U.S. cities. A stepwise regression analysis indicates that 41% of the difference between female and male poverty rates can be explained by the percent of women in the three US Bureau of Labor Statistic's lowest wage occupations. There was no evidence of a unique impact from tire percentage of female headed families in each city, or the study's other independent variables, on the gender poverty gap, with the exception of their contribution through the proportion of females in the lowest wage occupations. This study provides empirical support for the likely ineffectiveness of TANF initiatives promoting employment and marriage for alleviating female poverty.

In addition, the study found important non-random geographic variations in the difference between cities with the highest and lowest gender disparity in poverty rates. Only one of the ten US cities with the highest rankings in gender poverty disparity is located west of the Mississippi River.

Key words: gender, poverty, low-wage occupations, family composition, female-headed families

Introduction

Throughout history, female poverty rates have surpassed male poverty rates in virtually every society (Casper, McLanahan, & Garfinkel, 1994). Following Diana Pearce's (1978) conceptualization of the "feminization of poverty," researchers began in earnest to explore multiple dimensions of the gender disparities in poverty rates. In light of the steady gains in women's education and workforce participation, once again there has been renewed interest in the endurance of this gender poverty gap, as it persists into the modern post-industrial era (Chirstopher, England, Smeeding & Phillips, 2002; Bianchi,1999; McLanahan & Kelley, 1999).

Comparative studies, among technologically advanced western countries, consistently find the chasm between female and male poverty rates is widest in the U.S. (Daly & Rake, 2003; Christopher et al, 2002). Defining poverty as total cash income below half the median income in each respective country, single females were almost twice as likely as single males to live in poverty in the US (Christopher et al, 2002). In addition, this relatively high female poverty risk was maintained during a period when both females and males were benefiting (Bianchi's, 1999) from the eight consecutive years, between 1993 and 2000, of steadily declining US poverty rates (National Poverty Center, 2003).

Whereas this previous research examined gender inequality between nations, the current study is a within group examination of gender poverty disparity within the United States. Specifically, this study determines in which of the of the seventy largest U.S. cities the gender disparity in poverty rates is the greatest; and the factors contributing to such disparity. The US Census, which uses a comparatively conservative absolute poverty measure, reported in the last decennial census that overall 17% of females, compared to 13% of males, age 18 to 64 living in the largest US cities, had incomes below the poverty threshold (Bangs, Lichtenwalter, Hughes, Anthou & Shorter, 2003). Likewise, 36% of female headed families with children under age 18, compared to 21% of male headed families with children, in the largest 70 cities, had incomes below the poverty thresholds (Bangs et al, 2003).

The most recent national poverty statistics indicate poverty has increased again in 2001 and 2002 (American Community Survey, 2003; Parrott, 2003). Severe poverty, income below 50% of the poverty line, increased for nearly 1.5 million people between 2000 and 2002, and has returned to its 1996-1997 levels (Fremstad, 2004). Therefore, it is likely that there has been a further widening in the gender poverty gap since the last census. …

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