Guest column: On International Women’s Day, let us pledge to end female poverty

Candace C. Coffman

March 8 marks International Women’s Day, and activists have celebrated it for 100 years now. Through the decades, women have campaigned not only for equal access to the political realm but also better pay and shorter work hours. This year’s theme, set by the United Nations, is “The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.” Here at home, to gain momentum, women need to gain economic power.

Today, the United States has the highest poverty rates among high-income countries.

According to census figures, 46.2 million people were living in poverty in the United States in 2010, with adult women almost 30 percent more likely to be poor than adult men. Families in poverty are even more dependent on women’s work both inside and outside the home, resulting in longer days and more intense work for women.

While poverty has largely been absent from political discourse, most often when it is discussed the focus is on preventing the middle class from falling on harder times or on urban poverty. Though both are important and neglected issues, what is even less discussed is the reality of the disproportionate effect of poverty on women and, in particular, rural women.

The highest concentrated areas of poverty in the country lie in the South, which is largely rural. Rural poverty in the United States is more pervasive than urban poverty, with almost all of the persistent poverty counties being rural. Not surprisingly, women in rural areas fare worse than their urban counterparts, with higher unemployment rates and lower educational opportunities.

Disproportionately low pay scales contribute heavily to poverty rates experienced by women. Even after employment is secured, white women on average earn 77 cents for every $1 that a white man in the same position earns, and women of color earn even less: 62 cents for African-American women and 54 cents for Hispanic women.

In addition to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (signed into law January 2009), the Paycheck Fairness Act recently introduced in Congress would require disclosure about how much employees are paid. The passage of this act would be a crucial victory for female workers fighting for equal compensation.

We need comprehensive wage reform that addresses gender and racial inequalities across all industries.

One contributing factor to increased poverty among women is the lack of availability and high cost of decent childcare. Women continue to carry the burden of providing or finding alternatives for childcare, options which are increasingly scarce and exhibit rising costs. Childcare costs are the single most important factor that pushes single mothers into poverty. Single mothers in the United States work more hours and have higher poverty rates than single mothers in other high-income countries.

We need comprehensive social reform that guarantees more affordable options for women who operate in dual roles as caregivers and income providers.

Lack of transportation also disproportionately affects rural communities. Job opportunities may be available in nearby urban or semi-urban areas, but transportation to these opportunities may not exist for rural workers. We need comprehensive transportation reform that extends public options into more communities and increases access to employment.

Too often in our culture, poverty is presented as the result of personal failure rather than a series of systemic flaws. These statistics highlight the various contributing factors to our leading poverty rates in the United States. By addressing these issues, women can gain momentum by growing economic power.

On this International Women’s Day, let’s pressure our government to attack poverty that disproportionately affects rural women and to promote policies that bring justice for all.

Candace C. Coffman works for the U.S. Human Rights Network. She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.