Women and Poverty in America

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70% of the Nation’s Poor are Women & Children

Women in America are still 35 percent more likely than men to be poor in America, with single mothers facing the highest risk. Currently, 35 percent of single women with children live and raise their families in poverty.

Legal Momentum has brought a gender lens to the work of national anti-poverty groups, with the goal of keeping women and children, who compose the overwhelming majority of poor Americans, at the center of policy-making targeted at alleviating poverty.


Ever since the United States started measuring poverty, women have been more likely to be poor than men. This disparity is present even at the very beginning of adulthood, as Legal Momentum found in its report, "Young Men are Still Better Off than Young Women" (PDF) (2008).

Many factors contribute to the persistent inequality and combine to put women at a disadvantage:

Segregation into Low-Paying Work

Despite composing nearly half of the workforce, women account for 60 percent of the nation’s lowest paid workers. The salaries for the vast majority of jobs held by women, in industries such as retail and hospitality, are consistently lower than in traditionally male career paths, such as construction, engineering, and energy. For this reason, Legal Momentum is working to expand women’s pathways into non-traditional work, which promises stronger salaries, stable benefits, and a pathway from poverty to prosperity.

Gender Wage Gap

Even when women have the same seniority or work experience, they are often paid less than their male colleagues. This inequity exists at all levels of employment.  Fair pay legislation provides an important tool for remedying this inequity, but more transparency is needed to ensure that employers are following the law and treating men and women workers fairly.

Inadequate Social Safety Net

Women and children account for over 70 percent of the nation’s poor. Unfortunately, the nation’s anti-poverty and safety net programs have repeatedly failed to take into account the reality of women’s lives and provide sufficient provisions for helping women and families escape poverty. Until very recently, and as is still the case in many states, unemployment insurance in most states was limited to full-time workers, leaving part-time workers – the vast majority of whom are women – with no assistance if they lost their jobs. Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the country’s main program for addressing family poverty, does not provide enough support to prevent acute material hardships – like hunger, homelessness, and utility cut-offs – for the families that rely on it. Work requirements for women with very young children create even higher hurdles. With women accounting for over 90 percent of adult TANF recipients, reforming this program is critical to alleviating women’s poverty.

Lack of Affordable Childcare

There are 11.5 million single-mothers in America. While women’s workforce participation has increased, the supply of affordable child care has lagged far behind, meaning that many single moms literally cannot afford to work or have to spend a large share of their meager income on childcare.

Family Caretaking Responsibilities

Regardless of marital status, family caretaking responsibilities more often fall to women: when a child or relative is sick, women are more likely to sacrifice work and income to take care of that person. For the many low-wage workers who lack paid sick leave, taking a child to the doctor means losing a half-day or full day’s wages when finances are already stretched to the breaking point.

Costs and Burdens of Pregnancy

Working women necessarily take time off for pregnancy and birth. While women with paid sick leave may be able to utilize that to offset some of the cost of childbearing, women in low wage-earning jobs must often forfeit income during the course of a pregnancy and immediately following a child’s birth. For women in non-traditional jobs, employers sometimes fail to modify job duties or force them into inappropriate light duty positions against their request; these types of behaviors may constitute pregnancy discrimination in violation of Title IX.

Violence and Abuse

Domestic violence and sexual assault have repercussions far outside a woman’s home or personal life. Victims of violence are forced to leave jobs for safety and take time off work to seek appropriate medical care and legal assistance. Many abusive partners limit their victim’s economic freedom, controlling checking accounts and garnishing paychecks.  In addition to physical and emotional injury, sexual and domestic violence leaves victims economically vulnerable as well.

Through research, analysis, litigation and advocacy, Legal Momentum advances policies that aim to alleviate and prevent women’s poverty: improving access to affordable childcare, increasing pathways to good paying jobs with benefits, protecting victims of violence from job and housing discrimination, guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers, and creating a social safety net that meets the basic needs of poor families.