In March, which was Social Work Month, NASW honored Dr. Diana Pearce with a special Presidential Award for Leadership in Research, celebrating her work in understanding and alleviating poverty in the United States as it affects woman-headed households.
In 1978, Dr. Pearce coined the term “the feminization of poverty,” which has since entered the mainstream of sociology and poverty studies nationally and internationally. Her original work addressed women on welfare, and as long as government cash assistance programs provide support that is below the “poverty line,” this aspect of the problem will endure.
However, the feminization of poverty affects many other households as well, including those working minimum wage jobs and single seniors who depend on Social Security benefits.
There are many factors that contribute to the feminization of poverty. One, of course, is the remaining pay differential between women and men. When the hourly wages of all women are averaged together and compared with those for all men, the difference was about 59 cents on the dollar in 1978, and now it is up to 82 cents.
The earnings gap is even greater for Hispanic women and black women (55 percent and 64 percent, respectively, of the earnings of white men). That is why NASW has always been a staunch advocate of legislation that addresses pay equity issues.
More women than men hold “pink collar” jobs, are in service work, and do contract or part-time work (typically without adequate benefits). Social work itself is a pink-collar profession, and women in social work currently earn 88 percent of the average for men in the field.
More recently, Dr. Pearce has been working to replace the poverty line measure used in the United States to measure minimum economic well-being with an index of Economic Self-Sufficiency Standard. This new measure, which has been calculated for 37 states and the District of Columbia, takes into account real-life expenses like taxes, housing and child care (including but not limited to food), is adjusted for the ages of children in the home, assumes that all adults in the home will be employed, and does not assume welfare benefits.
It works for all kinds of households and family structures. The measure has been used to advocate for raising the minimum wage and as an outcome goal for programs preparing people for employment, including welfare to work programs.
While some scholars argue that the feminization of poverty in the United States is less of a problem now than in 1978, everyone agrees that it remains a problem for elderly women.
More women than men in the United States depend solely or predominantly on Social Security benefits for their income (90 percent to 100 percent), which is also true for households of color. The average monthly Social Security benefit is currently $1,230. More women than men live into great old age; while this is obviously a benefit, it also means that they live into those years when they are living alone and when chronic and disabling illnesses require increasing expenditures for medications and other kinds of care.
The Elder Economic Security Index™, developed to measure the real costs of living in old age, is but a special case of that same kind of thinking about the real lives of people that social work is so good at.
The feminization of poverty also has relevance today in global thinking about gender justice and social development. For example, those who devote themselves to addressing the social determinants of health on a global scale know that the empowerment of women is the key to improving the health of all people and to reducing health disparities worldwide.
In its definition of social work, the International Federation of Social Work reminds us, “Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work.”
As NASW president, I can think of no better way to celebrate our profession than to honor the work of one of our own and to recommit ourselves to gender justice issues going forward.