NASW forum examines women and poverty

Gloria SteinemWomen’s liberation movement leader Gloria Steinem speaks during a special NASW presidential forum, the “Feminization of Poverty Revisited,” held on March 20 in Washington, D.C. The event drew more than 100 female leaders in social work and a variety of other professions. The forum examined the impact poverty has on women in the U.S. and internationally and promoted the importance of advocacy for gender equality.

Tina TchenGloria Steinem, iconic visionary of the women’s movement, and Tina Tchen (photo left), White House chief of staff for the office of the first lady, were among the guest speakers at a recent special NASW presidential forum titled the “Feminization of Poverty Revisited.”

More than 100 female leaders and advocates — including health care professionals, policy analysts, economists and government officials — gathered in Washington, D.C., on March 20 to re-examine the term “Feminization of Poverty,” which was first coined by social worker Diana Pearce in 1978. Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare, also spoke at the conference, as did Theresa Kaijage, a global expert on poverty; and Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Jeane AnastasThe event, organized by NASW President Jeane Anastas (photo right), addressed the impact poverty has on women in the U.S. and internationally and promoted the importance of advocacy for gender equality.

“As we all know, disparities in income and wealth continue to increase in the United States and also continue among and within nations around the world,” Anastas said in her opening remarks. “We are here today because we know the topic — the feminization of poverty — remains an important one.”

Women have been disproportionately affected by the economic recession and continue to recover at a slower rate than their male counterparts, Anastas said. In the social work profession, attention to women’s issues has always been a top priority, but social workers must also collaborate with women leaders from other disciplines to change the differential impact that poverty and inequality have on women and girls in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

“One of the issues that piqued my interest is the majority of women in the social work field who don’t make as much as men,” said Adrienne Gavula, relationship manager at NASW’s Ohio Chapter. “I’m here to look for ways to address equal pay and promotion.”

Steinem, who co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. Magazine in the early 70s, spoke about spending more than 40 years fighting for equal rights for women.

Steinem said while growing up in Toledo, Ohio, she had an early education in the way adjectives preceded what was meant to seem inferior, such as “women scientists” and “black writer,” as opposed to just scientist or writer. One of the things Steinem talked about in her presentation, called “The Longest Revolution,” was the masculinization of wealth.

“Equal pay for female human beings of all races would bring $2 billion more into the economy,” she said. “These women will not put their money into a Swiss bank account. No, they will spend it and create jobs.”

Steinem also focused on the importance of paying attention to immigration policies in the U.S. as it affects women. She said there are several things to keep in mind, including realizing that the work women do is real work. Forty percent of immigrant women work at home taking care of children and families. Steinem said if more immigrant women had visas, they wouldn’t be as dependent on their husbands. The U.S. needs to once again become a safe haven for survivors of violence and trafficking, and that it’s important to protect families and ensure due process. Deportations are issued for parents of children who are U.S. citizens, and there have been more than 400,000 of these deportations in the last year alone, she said, which tears apart many families.

Tchen, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, discussed President Obama’s support of women and the policies he is working on to help women across the U.S. get out of poverty and improve quality of life.

“From day one, the president emphasized the need to pay attention to women and girls, and it’s followed through in all of our policies,” Tchen said.

Some of the policies in place that have benefited women include the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the child tax credit, which was estimated to keep 5 million women out of poverty, she said. The president’s Affordable Care Act makes it possible for 13 million women to have access to health care and preventive screenings as of Jan. 1, and raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour is said to help women supporting families on minimum wage incomes, Tchen said.

“As the president announced in the State of the Union address, no matter who you are or where you’re from you should be able to find a good job and support your family,” she said. “Learn about the current issues, get well armed and then talk about what’s going on. People don’t understand that what’s happening in Washington is a debate on issues that affect them.”

Diana PearceSocial worker Diana Pearce, director of the Center for Women’s Welfare, coined the term “feminization of poverty” in 1978. Pearce spoke at the forum and also received the NASW Presidential Award for Leadership and Research.

Pearce, a senior lecturer at the University of Washington School of Social Work and recipient of the NASW Presidential Award for Leadership and Research, described the term “Feminization of Poverty” as the naming of an experience.

“Women will come up to me and say, ‘That’s me, that’s my life. I am the feminization of poverty,’ and follow with details on how it happened to her,” Pearce said in her presentation.

About one-fourth of all families in the U.S. live in poverty and half of all poor families are maintained by women alone, Pearce said. A labor market that discriminates against women with economic consequences, and the fact that there has never been a welfare reform or war on poverty that specifically takes gender into account are two causes of the feminization of poverty, she said.

“Gender cannot be ignored; poverty of men and poverty of women are different problems and require different solutions,” Pearce said.

Hartmann referenced her own experiences growing up as the child of a single mother on welfare in her presentation “Women & Poverty Today: Low Wage Jobs and Unemployment.” Now an economist and Yale graduate, Hartmann discussed why women in America are disproportionately poorer than men.

“Women tend to have children and stay with the family, men tend to leave and not support the family,” she said.

Heidi HartmannHeidi Hartmann, right, president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, talks with a participant during NASW’s “Feminization of Poverty Revisited” forum, held recently in Washington, D.C. Hartmann was a speaker at the event.

Twenty-five percent of families with children under 18 have been raised by single women alone, she said. “Even if women made the same amount as men, the fact is they raise the children on their own …”

She discussed the economic strategies of other countries with lower rates of poverty than the U.S., where women have access to free child care and automatic government support, even though they make less than men on average.

“How these countries do it, I don’t know, but we can do it here, too,” she said. “What we need is public support for working and nonworking families to keep them out of poverty.”

Social insurance that provides income replacement covers retirement, long-term disability and unemployment only, she said, adding that the U.S. is unique among advanced countries in not having the right to a paid sick day.

“You can imagine that’s a real problem for women raising children,” Hartmann said.

Theresa KaijageKaijage, director of Kaijage Consultants, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, said there is a cost of being born female, especially in Africa. But identifying women as the face of poverty is preventable, she said, especially through education.

“I am a big supporter of education,” Kaijage said. “Education is key to empowering women and fighting the lopsided development that leaves women behind to sink back deeper into poverty.”

She said putting pressure on government entities in the U.S. can have an impact all over the world. “You have the power for what Congress is going to approve for foreign aid. Start where someone is able to start fighting.”

Panel speakers: The Unequal Burdens in Health Care Access

The March 20 “Feminization of Poverty Revisited” forum included a panel discussion titled “The Unequal Burdens in Health Care Access.”

Social workers and subject matter experts on the panel discussed the challenges women in the U.S. face when navigating the health care system for themselves and their families.

Speakers included Laura Lein, dean and professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work; Jane Delgado, president and CEO of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health; Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women’s Health Research; and Cecilia Firethunder, tribal community health advocate and former president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Each speaker discussed the health care challenges related to poverty and poor health that affect women in various demographics.

These include women who live in urban areas, Native American women on reservations, women not poor enough for Medicaid but who don’t have enough money to buy insurance, and immigrant women.