The "feminization of poverty" was a popular topic in the 1970s and 1980s, but it has largely disappeared from policy discussion. Although important progress has been made on women's issues since that era, a new report by the Child and Poverty Center shows the persistence of substantial gender-based disparities in poverty and earnings between men and women in Iowa and the United States.

"Women, Work and Poverty: The 21st Century Challenge," written by Charles Bruner, with Michael Crawford and Anne Discher, shows a continued gap in the poverty rate among men and women over the last half century, although the causes and consequences have changed.

Policy gains have helped many women.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the women's liberation movement put a spotlight on the difficulties women faced in the workplace, such as pay inequalities for the same work, the "glass ceiling" faced by women climbing the corporate ladder, the segregation of women in the lowest-paid jobs, inadequate child-support payments, and the absence of family-leave policies and affordable child care.

Since that time, women's participation in the workforce has increased dramatically, and a number of state and federal policies have helped to reduce pay disparities. Iowa's comparable worth legislation, for instance, narrowed the gap in earnings for men and women in state government. Significant improvements in child-support enforcement and awards have brought much-needed infusion of funds for single parents. Low-income parents have much greater access to child-care subsidies to help them enter the workforce. Federal and state earned income tax credits offer a critical boost in income to the lowest-income working families. All these actions have helped to improve the economic security of women.

Despite progress, women continue to lag behind men in earnings.

One factor countering this progress, however, is that women continue to be disproportionately employed in low-wage jobs in the private sector, including those in fast-growing fields like child care and home-health care. In fact, nationally, working-age women are 40 percent more likely than working-age men to live in poverty, a gap that has remained consistent since 1990. Women have significantly increased their education levels, but the mean income of women remains below that of men with similar levels of education. This fact is particularly troublesome in Iowa, where workforce participation of both women and men is higher than for the nation as a whole, but the proportion of women and men with college and graduate degrees is below the national average.

Single parenting is a major factor in the continued disparity between men's and women's incomes.

A second large countertrend to achieving greater equality in income has been the increase in single parenting during this period. There are many more single-parent families headed by women than headed by men - and much higher rates of poverty among those families. In Iowa, only 4 percent of married couples live in poverty, compared with 37 percent of mother-only families, and 16 percent of father-only families. While divorce plays a role in this increase in single parenting, the biggest factor is the increase in the share of never-married parents - a pattern most common among women with low levels of education.  These disparities have a critical racial and ethnic component. In 2007, 63 percent of
African-American families were headed by single parents, compared with 26 percent of white families. Adolescent parenting is also far more common among minority families.

Some safety-net programs for low-income families haven't kept pace with the need.

A final countertrend is the general decline in public assistance for single-parent families with young children. For decades, welfare payments were intended to provide ongoing income to families caring for young children. But welfare reform of the 1990s shifted the focus toward temporary aid as a bridge to employment. Even factoring in a substantial increase in the child-care subsidies needed to help parents enter the workforce, the state's investment in safety-net services has slipped. Between 1980 and 2008, Iowa investments in direct welfare payments and child-care subsidies together declined by nearly one-half in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The state and federal government have made major investments in other forms of assistance, such as Iowa's hawk-i program, which provides health insurance for children, and the food-support program, SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. Money invested in these programs now exceeds that put into direct welfare payments, but their benefits are still limited. The relatively low cut-offs for SNAP benefits and child-care subsidies contribute to a "cliff" in government support to low-income families, as families make even modest improvements in their wages. The corresponding reductions in food support and child-care subsidies often negate most or all of those gains.

Other public policies play important roles in supporting working mothers.

In recent decades, both the state and federal government have made major contributions to the well-being of families through tax policies. In particular, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and child credit has effectively lifted tens of millions of children out of poverty. In addition, the state of Iowa was among the first states to enact an earned income tax credit. However, the state's more limited EITC and its overall tax structure reduce some of the federal benefits - and place a much heavier burden on working families than on any other type of taxpayer.

In other areas, major reforms in child support in the 1980s have substantially increased the amount of money flowing to custodial parents, generally women. In fact, public child-support-enforcement activity now exceeds the amount of benefits from direct welfare payments.

Finally, there remains significant work to be done in the area of family leave, particularly paid leave, where the U.S. continues to lag far behind many other countries. Such leave is an especially valuable tool for parents of young children, because they tend to be at the starting points of their careers and their parenting responsibilities are most time-consuming at this stage.


"Women, Work and Poverty" describes important trends and offers policy options to address them but does not provide simple answers. The purpose of the report is to provide the evidence and again raise the issue of gender disparities in poverty.

"CFPC produced this report to stimulate discussion and attention," Charles Bruner indicated. "The report provides the facts and information to show that 'the feminization of poverty' exists today and impacts both women and children. It needs to be a subject of policy attention today every bit as much as it did fifty years ago."

The executive summary and the full report are available at

Contact: Charles Bruner(515) 280-9027

The Des Moines-based Child and Family Policy Center (CFPC) was established in 1989 by former Iowa legislator Charles Bruner to better link research and policy on issues vital to children and families and to advocate for evidenced-based strategies to improve child outcomes. CFPC works at the community, state, and national levels on child- and family-policy issues, with a particular emphasis upon developing more asset-based and comprehensive approaches to helping children and their families succeed.

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