Though we’ve technically been recovering from the Great Recession since late 2009, the poverty rate in the United States has been stuck at about 15 percent since 2010. New data released yesterday from the Census Bureau showed that last year wasn’t much better. Poverty rates held steady at the highest levels in a generation. Median incomes have fallen in the last ten years by more than 11 percent. Coupled with recent studies showing that most of the recovery’s gains have gone to the top 1 percent of income earners, the data on poverty confirms what many already knew: Inequality is growing, and the middle class is dying. That’s especially true when you examine the status of women and racial minorities.
The median incomes for Asian and white families last year were $68,636 and $57,009 respectively. For Hispanics and blacks, they were $39,005 and $33,321. These incomes are statistically unchanged from 2011, which means that if the economy is growing, the average family isn’t feeling it. The decline is, in part, evidenced by the very low minimum wage. It’s currently $7.25 an hour, but if these workers were sharing as much in the prosperity of their companies as they had in the past, they could be making as much as $21.72 an hour.
And who is poor? Mostly women. The National Women’s Law Center combed the data and found that more than one in seven women is living in poverty, and more than half of the country’s poor children are in female-headed households. The poverty rate for men is still lower, at 11 percent, than the record low for women, which was 11.5 percent in 2000. About a quarter of black and Hispanic women live in poverty.
In a few months, more numbers will be released that show how some government programs, like food stamps, help prevent even more families from falling into poverty. At the same time, the farm bill will hit Congress for renewal, and it will inevitably cut the food-stamp program. The vast majority of the families who depend on such programs are working and have children. “It’s shocking that some lawmakers are proposing savage cuts to programs that help families meet basic needs and give them a chance to get ahead while insisting that the very wealthy and big corporations should not pay a penny more in taxes,” Joan Entmacher, vice president of Family Economic Security at the National Women’s Law Center, said in a statement. “It’s unfair, it’s untenable, and it’s un-American.”
It also might be deadly.
The average American woman hasn’t fared much better than the poorest ones in recent years. After decades of gains, women are still stuck at 77 cents on the male dollar. Hanna Rosin recently argued in Slate that this number was misleading, and it is true that it doesn’t take into account that women do different jobs than men do. Conservatives have always argued the wage gap is due to women’s choices to leave work and take care of their children, but choices aren’t made in a vacuum. The jobs available to women, and jobs we associate with women, are underpaid relative to similar occupations to men. Women are promoted less often than men, tend to feel stuck in midlevel positions, and are promoted based on their past achievements while men are promoted based on their perceived potential. A report by Guidestar USA, which tracks financial data for nonprofits, found that women doing the same job as men are still underpaid. Since the report compared women and men in the exact same positions, any “choice” arguments are not applicable. It’s even worse in corporate America.
The numbers of women in poverty and the stagnation of women’s progress in work tell the same story: It is still difficult to be a woman in America, especially if you are black or Hispanic. There have been other headline-grabbing numbers about women lately—more women are going to college and more women are their families’ breadwinners—that at first seem contradictory. It’s tempting to hope they augur an end to gender discrimination. Instead, they support the poverty numbers. Women must go to college and must out-earn men simply to be treated equally. Women aren’t doing better than men. They just have higher hurdles before they can do well at all.