The page below, while continuing to serve as a compendium of prior treatments of the feminization of poverty, has been superseded by a main Feminization of Poverty page.
FEMINIZATION OF POVERTY
(Jan. 22, 2009; rev. Nov. 20, 2010)
A good deal of material on this site addresses the so-called “feminization of poverty” – which, at least when the term was originally coined in 1978, referred to the dramatic increase in the proportion of the United States poor comprised by female-headed families.In various article between 1987 and 2000,[i] I explained why – given that female-headed families will comprise a larger proportion of the very poor than the poor – reductions in poverty, including the poverty of female-headed, tend almost invariably to cause female-headed families to comprise a larger proportion of the poor (and a larger proportion of the non-poor) than they did before the reduction.Some of these articles also explain that the dramatic increase in the proportion of the poor between 1959 and the mid 1970s the caused the coining of the phrase feminization of poverty was in substantial part a result of dramatic reductions in poverty for all groups between 1959 and the mid 1970s.These materials, also explain, in terms of a corollary to the above pattern, why reductions in poverty tend to increase the relative difference between the poverty rates of female-headed families and other groups while decreasing the relative difference between rates of avoiding poverty.Among recent materials, the issue is addressed only in Sections B.1 and B.2 of the Scanlan’s Rule page.There the issue is mainly discussed with regard to the fact the described patterns are so evident in the very data on which researchers rely to address comparative poverty issues.That is, those data show that more poverty-prone groups comprise a larger proportion of the population falling below 75% of the poverty line than they do of the population falling below the poverty line itself (as in Table 1 of Chance 2006 editorial).
The failure to appreciate the statistical basis for the originally observed feminization of poverty warrants some further attention today.In January 22, 2010 Google searches, for “’feminization of poverty yielded’” 1,080,000 results and “’feminisation of poverty’” (the British spelling) yielded 471,000.Add “’globalization” to the former and “’globalisation’” to the latter and one gets, respectively, 552,000 and 129,000 results.While I would hope that some university instructors are explaining the statistical basis for the observed patterns, the Internet reveals no such understanding even among works that are critical of the feminization of poverty concept (as in the works of Sylvia Chant).[ii]
It may be some time before I again give serious attention to this issue.At this time, however, I am at least creating this page, citing references where I have explained the issue and setting out immediately below (as Items A to C) some excerpts of materials discussing the issue.No excerpts are included for Plain Dealer 1987 or Signs 1991 (full references in note i) since those items are devoted almost entirely to the subject.
Items addressing the different issue of whether the comparative situation of women compared with men (or female-headed families compared with other units) would be expected to have changed in a meaningful sense include Signs 1991 and the excerpt set out in item D (from "The Curious Case of Affirmative Action for Women," Society 29(2) (Jan/Feb 1992) (reprinted in Current (June 1992))).
Consider the poverty debate.Which figure is more meaningful:the proportion of female-headed family members who are poor or the proportion of the poor who are in female-headed families?As the simplified account above illustrates, the first statistic tells us more about the economic plight of female-headed families; but ever since people began speaking of "the feminization of poverty" in the late 1970s, attention has focused on the perceived increase in the latter proportion.
In 1980 the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity made a frequently quoted pronouncement:"All other things being equal, if the proportion of the poor who are in female-headed families were to increase at the same rate as it did from 1967 to 1977, they would comprise 100 percent of the poverty population by about the year 2000!"In the ensuing years, the theme was pursued throughout the media.For example, a 1983 column in the Washington Post that questioned the Reagan administration's concern for women noted:
Women have become much more economically vulnerable in the past 30 yeas than is generally understood…. In 1959 only 14.8 percent of [whites] below the poverty line were [in families] headed by women; in 1980, more than a quarter of them were.The figures for black families are even more staggering:24.4 percent of [blacks] below the poverty line in 1959 were [in families] headed by women, but 58.6 [percent] of them were by 1980.
The preoccupation with these provocative data, however, has led people to ignore certain critical features of the feminization of poverty.Most significant is the fact that, as a rule, the feminization of poverty varies inversely with the amount of poverty.That is, when poverty is decreasing, female-headed families––being those most susceptible to poverty––will comprise a larger proportion of the poor, even as the poverty rate for such families is also declining.
Thus a major reason for the dramatic increase in the feminization of poverty––which actually occurred between 1959 and the mid-1970s –– was an unprecedented reduction in poverty that included major reductions in the poverty of female-headed families.Between 1959 and 1974, for example, the poverty rate for whites in female-headed families dropped from 40 percent to 28 percent as the overall white poverty rate declined from 18 percent to 9 percent.Though far less poverty-prone than in 1959, members of female-headed had almost doubled their representation among the white poor (from 15 percent to 27 percent), while their representation among the overall white population had grown by only about one-fourth.
Conversely, an across-the-board increase in poverty would have caused a drop in the proportion of the poor made up of female-headed families.In fact, after a striking and uninterrupted increase between 1959 and 1974, the proportion of the poor who were in female-headed families declined with the economic stagnation of the late 1970s and the substantial rise in poverty that ensued in the early 1980s––even though such families were becoming a larger proportion of the total population.While decreases in poverty since 1983 have somewhat increased the feminization of poverty for both whites and blacks, in 1989 the proportion of the white poor who were in female-headed––27.5 percent––was still only marginally higher than the 27.2 percent of 1974; for blacks, the 59.4 percent of 1989 remained significantly lower than the 1978 high of 61.8 percent.This history has been ignored in most commentary, however, which has presented differences between 1959 and the mid-1980s as if they reflected a continuing trend.
As explained earlier, a corollary to the tendency for disparities in poverty rates to increase when poverty declines is the tendency for more poverty-prone groups to make up a larger proportion of the population that remains poor after an overall decline in poverty.Thus, during the period of dramatic and consistent declines in poverty between 1959 and the middle 1970s female-headed families came to comprise a much higher proportion of the poor than they had previously.This pattern was then denominated the “feminization of poverty,” and in 1980 a presidential advisory panel lamented that, if current trends continued, by the year 2000 the poverty population would be entirely comprised of female-headed families.
As this provocative prediction was repeatedly quoted over the ensuing years, no one questioned why a society should be concerned that poverty would be limited solely to the most poverty-prone groups, as would certainly be the case were we to verge on the total elimination of poverty (including the poverty of female-headed families).In any event, by the time the feminization of poverty was identified, the dramatic and consistent decline in poverty that was one of its principal causes had already ceased.The most recent data show poverty just about as feminized as it was 20 years earlier.Those who have even noticed that the pattern ceased long ago, however, have failed to recognize the reason.
Neither poverty nor disease, nor any of the other varied adverse circumstances to which the described tendencies apply, always decline.And when a condition does increase, it is sometimes considered newsworthy that it has increased more among the least susceptible group.But it is when the condition does not increase more in the least susceptible group that the matter actually is newsworthy.
C. Excerpts from Section B of Scanlan’s Rule page:
1. Feminization of Poverty 1.In the late 1970s it was observed that the female-headed families were comprising an increasing proportion of the poor.This pattern was termed the “feminization of poverty” and universally regarded as a very negative trend.In 1980 a presidential advisory panel lamented that, if current trends continued, by the year 2000 the poverty population would be entirely comprised of female-headed families.The pattern was in part a function of the fact that female-headed family members were becoming an increasing proportion of the total population.But it was also in substantial part a function of the fact that between 1959 and the mid-1970s there occurred dramatic declines in poverty, including the poverty of female-headed families.This went overlooked as did the fact that at about the time the feminization of poverty was discovered, poverty ceased to decline and, correspondingly, ceased to become more feminized.By the year 2000, poverty was no more feminized that it was when the feminization of poverty was discovered.Nevertheless, there continues to be a perception that poverty is still becoming increasingly feminized.A September 6, 2009 Google search for “’feminization of poverty’” yielded 828,000 results.The phrase “’feminisation of poverty’” [sic] also yielded 570,000 results, reflecting the way the concept has spread to the United Kingdom and other places that use British spelling.Virtually none of the discussions underlying these hits recognizes the connection between the feminization of poverty and declining poverty.
An interesting issue to ponder is the near universal failure to recognize that a natural consequence of reductions in some adverse outcome is that it would become increasingly concentrated in groups that are disproportionately susceptible to such outcome, as in the case of more poverty-prone groups, like single parent families, or that, were we to verge on the total elimination of poverty, the poor would be entirely comprised of groups that are disproportionately poverty-prone.See A1, A3, A4, A5, A10 of the Measuring Health Disparities page (MHD) of jpscanlan.com.Only on occasion will observers note with concern that poverty has spread to groups that are not ordinarily very poverty-prone.Such spread is properly recognized as a cause for concern.But it nevertheless goes unrecognized that the opposite trend is not necessarily a negative one.
Given the resources devoted to health disparities research in recent decades, or even the resources devoted to exploring health disparities measurement issues, the near universal failure to recognize SR1 within the health disparities research communities here and abroad must be considered at least somewhat remarkable.That is the more so when one considers that persons with statistical backgrounds would be expected to understand that a difference between the means of two groups that yields modest relative differences in rates of falling above or below either mean yields much larger relative differences with regard to falling above or below more extreme values.And to know such tendency is to know SR1.But at least with regard to things like relative differences in mortality rates, where the underlying distributions are not directly observable (even if distributions of closely correlated factors are observable, as with the systolic blood pressure levels underlying Figure 8 of B11 (BSPS 2007) or the folate levels discussed in D62 (Comment on Dowd) and illustrated in Table 1 of the NHANES Illustrations sub-page), the seeming invisibility of the risk distributions undoubtedly contributes to the failure to recognize SR1 or its implications.Things are different in the case of the feminization of poverty and other areas where demographic differences in poverty are studied with a near universal failure to recognize that declines in poverty will almost always cause poorer groups to comprise a larger proportion of the poor and increase relative differences in poverty rates (as well as cause poorer groups to make up a larger proportion of the non-poor and reduce relative differences in rates of avoiding poverty.)For data illustrating the relevant patterns are widely published, in particular the data on populations falling below various ratios of the poverty line that underlie the discussion of the feminization of poverty in MHD items A1 (Plain Dealer 1987), A3 (Public Interest 1991), A4 (Signs 1991), A5 (Chance 1994), A10 (Society 2000) and that are replicated in Table 1 of item A12 (Chance 2006).And, of course, the reader may note that everything on MHD flows more or less directly from A1, the 1987 Plain Dealer article styled “’Feminization of Poverty’ is Misunderstood.”In any case, it is difficult to understand how researchers can look at data like that found in Table 1 of A12 and fail at least to recognize the likely effects of increases or decreases in poverty on relative differences in poverty rates.
2.Feminization of Poverty 2.The feminization of poverty is composed of two elements: (1) an increase in the proportion female-headed families comprise of the total population; and (2) an increases in the relative difference in poverty rates female-headed families and other part of the population.The latter can result from (a) declines in poverty or (b) factors that reflect something other than the consequences of a decline in poverty.It should be evident that it makes little sense to study a subject like the feminization of poverty without separate consideration of (1) and (2), since they are quite different phenomena and, moreover, are phenomena warranting quite different responses.Yet only a few studies have separately examined these issues.And researchers who have separately examined changes in the relative susceptibility to poverty of female-headed families (or women generally) and other parts of the population have done so without consideration of the extent to which such changes are a function of changes in overall poverty.See A4 on MHD.
The "feminization of poverty" probably resulted in part from genuine declines in the relative well-being of female-headed families, a decline that affects a much larger proportion of the population than those near the poverty line. The most obvious reason for such a decline, however, is the dramatic increase of the participation of married women in the labor force. This fact has turned comparisons between female-headed families and married-couple families increasingly into comparisons between one-earner and two-earner families.
Policies that enhance the labor-force status of women could mitigate the disadvantage of working single parents, even though married women and their families could benefit from such policies as well. For example, viewing the matter very roughly, with an increase in average female earnings from 60 percent to 80 percent of the family wage of a married-couple family where only the husband works and would rise from 38 percent (that is, sixty over 160) to 44 percent (that is, eighty over 180) of the family wage of married-couple family where both spouses work. But in reality, female heads of households are unlikely to share proportionately in the expanded opportunities for women because problems of childcare limit their ability to compete with other women for demanding jobs.
In addition, the expansion of opportunities for women has probably caused greater participation of married women in the labor force than it would otherwise be. Thus affirmative action policies are likely to operate to the detriment of even single working parents. And, of course, for the in excess of 50 percent of poor female heads of families who do not work, enhancing the employment opportunities of women who do work (most of whom are married), can only increase their relative disadvantage compared with the married-couple families.
[ii] An exception may be the course Quantitative Reasoning and Statistical Methods for Planning I a the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which since 1997 has required the reading of “The Perils of Provocative Statistics.”