By Amanda Grigg
Poverty politics are in right now. By which I mean we’re embarking on a national conversation about the strategies we should use to tackle the problem of poverty and how we define poverty, and whether poverty rates have declined, and what counts as welfare and whether that matters. And by we I mean me, you, and Beyoncé. Oh, and members of both of the nation’s major political parties.
Now, here’s your feminism 101 lesson for the day: poverty is a women’s issue. Women in America earn less than men, are more likely to bear the costs of raising children than men, are more likely to be poor than men, and Black and Latina women face particularly high rates of poverty (source for those interested).
Thankfully in the midst of all of this recent Congressional poverty politicking, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress have released an exhaustive report that demonstrates the gendered nature of poverty in the U.S. and emphasizes the value of putting women at the forefront of efforts to address poverty. Here’s Maria Shriver from the report’s introduction (which is worth reading in full):
This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s new, central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure-perhaps it should be the measure-to shape common-sense policies and priorities for the 21st century. In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do.
In my mind this is where Maria Shriver drops the mic and yells, “Half the sky MF’ers.”
The report also features work by scholars like Carol Gilligan and Barabara Ehrenreich, and essays by celebrities including Beyoncé, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Garner, Jada Pinkett-Smith. Beyoncé’s brief essay takes on the myth of gender equality. That’s right. Beyoncé. On the myth of gender equality – if you listen carefully you can hear the sound of a million feminist fangirls (fanpeople? fanminists?) swooning. Here are the highlights:
We need to stop buying into the myth of gender equality. It isn’t a reality yet. Today, women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes.
Equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect.
I read this as Beyoncé pretty much begging me to write about the links between income inequality and social and political inequality – which have gone a bit under-addressed so far in discussions of gendered poverty. If you insist, Bey.
In general, poor voters face a number of barriers to participation including limited time/inability to take time off of work to vote, felony disenfranchisement, and bureaucratic barriers to voting. This has meant that the poor have traditionally had lower turnout than the rest of the population. Recent research by Joe Soss and Lawrence Jacobs suggests that the links between economic inequality and political inequality are actually increasing – barriers like voter id laws are more common, income inequality is increasing, as is class-segregation, and government programs aimed at the poor are increasingly punitive (think drug-testing and limits on what can be purchased with SNAP), which makes the poor less likely to feel connected to or “heard” by the government.
According to Soss’s past research, recipients of entitlement programs like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are far more likely to view the government as open, democratic, and responsive to their needs than recipients of traditional “welfare” programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. They are also more likely to believe that their individual participation is effective, that collective movements could be effective and that the government listens to people like themselves. In Soss’s work, entitlement program recipients linked government unresponsiveness to the common feeling that the government is “out of touch,” while a majority of welfare recipients specifically linked it to their status as welfare clients. As one woman explained to Soss, public officials “would listen even less because I’m in this group of people that they’re trying to – that they have these stereotypes against…I’m looked at totally differently because of the fact that I‘m a recipient.”
Ange-Marie Hancock has a great book on this phenomenon called The Politics of Disgust which demonstrates how public myths and stereotypes about “welfare queens” marginalize poor women of color, discourage political leaders and the general public from considering them legitimate authorities on their own experiences and needs and thus discourage poor women of color from participating in the political process.
All of this is to say that the negative effects of poverty reach far beyond economic well-being and that, as Beyoncé and the Shriver Report remind us, these burdens disproportionately fall on the shoulders of women and children. So anyone interested in tackling these burdens (I’m looking at you, Republicans) had better make sure their proposals directly address the needs of women.