Chad Stone et al. of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) note in A Guide to Statistics on Historical Trends in Income Inequality (February 16, 2018, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/11-28-11pov_0.pdf) that the years from the end of World War II (1939–1945) through the 1970s marked a period during which the US economy grew and prosperity was shared broadly among people at all income levels. Since the 1970s the economy has grown more slowly, and income has become concentrated among the top earners to a degree not seen since the 1920s. These trends continued during and after the so-called Great Recession (which lasted from late 2007 to mid-2009), which left many lower- and middle-class Americans unemployed and indebted while those at the upper end of the income scale were much less affected. According to Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar of the US Census Bureau, in Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016 (September 2017, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/demo/P60-259.pdf), the top 20% of earners took home 51.5% of all income generated in 2016, and the top 5% received 22.6% of all income. These numbers had been gradually climbing over the course of the preceding decade, and they were markedly higher than in 1990 (when the top 20% earned 46.6% of all income, and the top 5% claimed 18.5%) and 1980 (when the top 20% earned 44.1%, and the top 5% claimed 16.5%).
These trends impact women disproportionately because on average women earn less money than men, have fewer assets, and are far more likely to live in poverty. Historically, women entered the labor market by filling the lowest-paying jobs and mirroring the work they customarily did at home: cleaning, cooking, sewing, and child care. In those rare cases where women and men did the same work prior to the civil rights and women's movements, women were paid less as a matter of course. In The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920–1970 (1972), William Henry Chafe examines the dimensions of the challenges women faced in seeking equality in the workplace, noting that a wage survey taken in 1833 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that most women workers in local textile factories received less for working 78 hours per week than men were getting for one 10-hour day.
Women had closed that earnings gap dramatically by the early 21st century. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) reports in The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap (March 2018, https://www.aauw.org/aauw_check/pdf_download/show_pdf.php?file=The-Simple-Truth) that in 2016 it was typical for women working full time in the United States to be paid 80% of what men were paid for the same work (meaning that the earnings gap was 20%). If the pay gap continues to close at the same rate that was seen between 1960 and 2016, women can expect to reach pay equity with men in 2059. The AAUW finds that, however, since 2001 the gap has been narrowing at a slower rate. If this rate persists, women will not reach pay equity with men until 2119.
The Earnings Gap
Women's median pay (the middle value; half are paid more and half are paid less) remains substantially lower than men's in the 21st century. Experts cite numerous factors that contribute to this disparity. Many women leave the workforce to stay at home while their children are young. Discrimination against female employees also contributes, at least in part, to the wage gap. In addition, women are more likely to be in low-paying, entry-level jobs, and they often work fewer hours and have fewer job skills than men. Because women have historically been excluded from many professions, older women are less likely to be highly experienced at their job than men; the most experienced and highest-paid workers in many industries are men.
As women in the aggregate have accumulated job experience and approached numerical parity among workers in individual professions, their wages have approached those of their male counterparts. Women's educational attainment has likewise increased dramatically since the mid-20th century. Women with degrees tend to earn more money and work for more years than women without degrees, and their salaries typically increase as they move up the professional ladder. The gap between women's and men's median earnings has narrowed over time, but progress has not been steady. Between 1960 and 2013 there were periods during which the earnings ratio (an expression of women's earnings as a percentage of men's) remained flat and periods that saw faster or slower movement toward equality (Jessica L. Semega, Kayla R. Fontenot, and Melissa A. Kollar, “Figure 2. Female-to-Male Earnings Ratio and Median Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers 15 Years and Older by Sex: 1960 to 2016,” in Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016, US Census Bureau, September 2017, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/demo/P60-259.pdf). The earnings ratio hovered near 60% from 1960 through the early 1980s, when it began to climb rapidly. The ratio grew from 60.2% in 1980 to 71.6% in 1990, but then over the following two decades growth in women's earnings relative to men's was slower (“Table P-40. Women's Earnings as a Percentage of Men's Earnings by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1960 to 2016,” in Historical Income Tables: People, US Census Bureau, September 2014, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps/tables/time-series/historical-income-people/p40.xls). By 2000 the ratio was 73.7%, and by 2016 it was 80.5%. In 2016 men who worked full time, year round had median earnings of $51,640 annually, whereas women who worked full time, year round had median earnings of $41,554 (Semega et al., US Census Bureau, 2017).
Weekly earnings may be a more accurate measure of the earnings gap because many women do not work year round. Some women leave the workforce to care for children, and others leave the workforce during the summer months when their children are out of school. Therefore, annual figures may not provide an accurate measure of women's earnings relative to the work they have done. In 2017 the median weekly earnings for women aged 16 years and older was $770, compared with $941 for men of the same age (“37. Median Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Selected Characteristics,” in Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 8, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat37.pdf). The resulting ratio of women's to men's earnings was 81.8%
Race and Hispanic Origin
The gap between women's and men's weekly earnings was higher among some racial and ethnic groups than others in 2017. White women earned a median of $795 per week, whereas white men earned $971; the resulting ratio of women's to men's earnings was 81.9% (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 8, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat37.pdf). Asian American women earned a median of $903 per week, compared with $1,207 for Asian American men (who had the highest median income of all demographic groups), for an earnings ratio of 74.8%. The gaps between the wages of African American women and men and Hispanic women and men were significantly lower, but that was a function more of comparatively low male earnings than of high female earnings. African American women made $657 per week, compared with $710 for men, for a ratio of 92.5%. Hispanic women made $603 per week, compared with $690 for men, for a ratio of 87.4%.
The earnings gap varies dramatically by occupation, but lower pay for women who do the same work as men is a constant in almost all occupations. Some of the most striking earnings disparities exist in higher-paid positions. For example, female personal financial advisers made 59.4% of what their male counterparts made in 2015 (“Table 18. Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers, by Detailed Occupation and Gender, 2015 Annual Averages (Numbers in Thousands),” in Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womensdatabook/2016/pdf/home.pdf). Significant differences also exist among accountants and auditors (73.5%), financial analysts (69.7%), and financial managers (65.2%). Many other high-paying and high-status occupations are also characterized by significant pay disparities. Female chief executives made only 81.6% of what male chief executives made in 2015, female postsecondary teachers (e.g., college professors) made only 81.4% of what male postsecondary teachers made, and female physicians and surgeons made only 80.1% of what male physicians and surgeons made.
Unsurprisingly, the most educated and highly skilled women earned the highest salaries in 2015. Chief executives ($1,836), pharmacists ($1,811), lawyers ($1,717), computer and information systems managers ($1,563), physicians and surgeons ($1,533), and nurse practitioners ($1,522) had the highest median weekly earnings among women (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womensdatabook/2016/pdf/home.pdf). The lowest-paying jobs for women were clustered in food preparation and serving occupations. Food preparation workers ($388), hostesses at restaurants, lounges, and coffee shops ($397), and maids and housekeeping cleaners ($407) had some of the lowest median weekly earnings among all workers; these were also jobs in which the majority of employees were women. Child care workers, almost all of whom were women, also had one of the lowest median weekly earnings ($430) of all employed people. Women working in agriculture were also poorly paid: graders and sorters of agricultural products were paid a median of $468 per week, and miscellaneous agricultural workers were paid a median of $398 per week.
Although women are becoming more educated and therefore earning more in aggregate than in previous decades, they continue to earn less at each level of educational attainment than men do. In 2015 female high school graduates with no college credits earned a median weekly wage of $586, compared with a median weekly wage of $759 earned by male high school graduates with no college credits (“Table 17. Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers 25 Years and Older, by Educational Attainment and Gender, 2015 Annual Averages,” in Women in the Labor Force: A Databook, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-databook/2016/pdf/home.pdf). Women with some college or an associate's degree earned a median of $664 per week, compared with $883 for men with the same level of education. Women with bachelor's degrees had median weekly earnings of $975, whereas men with the same educational attainment had median earnings of $1,304. At the master's ($1,160 versus $1,566), professional ($1,451 versus $1,888), and doctoral levels ($1,442 versus $1,758), women continued to have lower median earnings than their male counterparts.
Nonethless, women's median weekly earnings had either declined less or grown more than men's at all educational levels between 1979 and 2016 (“Chart 4. Percentage Change in Inflation-Adjusted Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Women and Men, by Educational Attainment, 1979–2016,” in Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2016, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/pdf/home.pdf). Men without a high school diploma lost 29% in constant (inflation-adjusted) dollar earnings during this period, whereas women lost 10%. Male high school graduates with no college credits saw their median weekly earnings fall 19% over the same period, whereas their female counterparts saw their earnings rise 5%. Men with some college or an associate's degree saw their earnings fall 12%, whereas their female counterparts saw their earnings rise 6%. Among those with a bachelor's degree or higher, women's earnings grew 35%, a rate almost double that of men's earnings (20%).
Marital Status and Children
In spite of changing attitudes about the roles of men and women, the burden of child-rearing continues to fall more heavily on women than on men, and it falls particularly heavily on single women. In 2016 married women living with their spouse and working full time had higher median weekly earnings ($838) than did women who had never married, were divorced or separated, or were widowed ($671) (“Table 7. Median Usual Weekly Earnings of Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers, by Marital Status and Presence and Age of Own Children under 18 Years Old, 2016 Annual Averages,” in Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2016, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/pdf/home.pdf). Married women with children under the age of 18 years earned slightly more ($870) than married childless women ($815), but single women with children earned much less ($607) than their childless counterparts ($697). Single women with children under the age of six years earned the least ($524) among all women workers. Married men with children, like married women with children, earned slightly more ($1,071) than their childless counterparts ($1,053). Although single men, like single women, made significantly less per week than married men, the presence of children did not correlate as strongly with lower incomes: childless single men earned only slightly more ($733) than single men with children under the age of 18 years ($719). There were more single childless men (23 million) than single childless women (18.4 million) in 2016, but there were more than twice as many single women with children under the age of 18 years (6 million) than single men with children under the age of 18 years (2.7 million).
The earnings gap varies with age. Women's weekly earnings grow fairly steadily with age, before falling after the age of 55 years. Women make a weekly median of $388 at ages 16 to 19 years, $500 at 20 to 24 years, $705 at 25 to 34 years, $839 at 35 to 44 years, $836 at 45 to 54 years. and $812 at 55 to 64 years. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which is part of the US Department of Labor, indicates in Highlights of Women's Earnings in 2016 (August 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/pdf/home.pdf) that as a proportion of men's earnings, women's earnings come closest to parity between ages 20 and 24 years, when they are 95.6% of men's. In their peak earning years, however, women's wages fall substantially as a proportion of men's. Women's earnings reach 83.3% of men' earnings at ages 35 to 44 years, 77.8% at 45 to 54 years, and 73.7% at 55 to 64 years.
Disparities in women's and men's wages vary by state. Women's salaries as a proportion of men's salaries in 2016 were highest in Vermont (90.2%), California (88%), New Mexico (88%), the District of Columbia (87.7%), and Oregon (87.5%). The states with the largest gender gaps were Utah, where women made only 69.9% of what men made per week, Wyoming (72.1%), New Hampshire (75.2%), and Connecticut (75.3%) (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/pdf/home.pdf).
In 2016 women who belonged to unions earned a weekly median of $955 per week, women who were represented by unions without being members earned a median of $942 per week, and women without union representation made $723 per week (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/womens-earnings/2016/pdf/home.pdf). Although union representation did not eliminate the earnings gap, it did ameliorate it somewhat. Women who were members of unions earned 91% of what their male counterparts were paid, compared with 90.4% for women who were represented by unions and 81.2% for women without union representation.
Women are substantially more likely than men to work part time or for part of the year. Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar indicate that an estimated 74.8% of working men were employed full time, year round in 2016, compared with 62.2% of working women. If taken over a woman's life span, the cumulative effect on earnings of periodic absences from the labor force or part-time work to balance work and family responsibilities is extensive. Nevertheless, women who worked part time had slightly higher median earnings than their male counterparts. Women working part time in 2017 had median weekly earnings of $265, compared with $250 for male part-time workers. Reducing the number of hours per week in the workforce as a way to balance work and family responsibilities is considered more acceptable for women than for men. This may account for why women part-time workers had higher median wages than did men (“38. Median Weekly Earnings of Part-Time Wage and Salary Workers by Selected Characteristics,” in Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, US Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 8, 2017, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat38.pdf).
Equal Pay Laws
The Equal Pay Act of 1963 made it illegal to pay women less than men working at the same job. However, pay discrimination is often much more difficult to identify than more visible forms of discrimination involving hiring, firing, and promotions, as illustrated by the Lilly Ledbetter (1938–) case. Moreover, Gwen Moran reports in “Here's What It Takes to Sue for Gender Pay Discrimination—and Win” (Fortune.com, April 12, 2016) that gender pay discrimination is also difficult to prove. Although the Equal Pay Act broadly stipulates that women and men should be paid equally for doing the same work, the law permits exceptions if the employer can prove that differential pay is justified as the result of a seniority system, a merit system, a pay system based on quantity or quality of output, or any other factor other than sex. Debra Lawrence, a regional attorney in the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Philadelphia District Office, explained to Moran that although the first three exceptions are clear and concrete, the “any other factor” exception allows the employer to cite a wide range of justifications for differential pay, including that the male employee has more experience or training or even that he negotiated more effectively for his higher salary. Statistics illustrate the difficulty of building a gender pay discrimination case. Moran reports that during fiscal year 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received 973 equal wage discrimination complaints (a number that has remained roughly the same since 1997), but 64% of these complaints were found to have “no reasonable cause” for action.
Notable among the successful gender pay discrimination cases in recent years was the 2012 victory of Heidi Wilson against Citicorp North America. When Wilson was promoted to manage a Citicorp service center in Tampa, Florida, she was paid $75,329. Wilson sued after she discovered that her male predecessor had been paid more than $129,000 the year before. In 2012 the court ordered Citicorp to pay Wilson nearly $340,000 in back wages. Wilson's lawyer Ryan D. Barack explained to Moran that this case was unusual in its clarity, given that Wilson's job was identical to the one held by her predecessor. When the wage disparity was revealed, Citicorp's violation of the Equal Pay Act was indisputable. According to Barack, job equivalency is rarely so easy to prove. Moreover, proving job equivalency gets increasingly more difficult in cases of higher skilled jobs. Lawrence explained to Moran, “When you have somebody in a factory making widgets, [proving] the equality is going to be easier. When you have professors of different subject matters within the same department of a university, that's going to be harder.”
Likewise, equal pay for equal work laws have little effect when the workplace is gender-segregated. In Separate and Not Equal? Gender Segregation in the Labor Market and the Gender Wage Gap (September 2010, https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/C377.pdf), Ariane Hegewisch et al. note that when ranking jobs into a three-tiered schema of low-skilled, medium-skilled, and high-skilled jobs, most workers fall into an occupation where at least 75% are of one gender. The researchers find that at each skill level, the median earnings are highest in male-dominated occupations and lowest in female-dominated occupations. Hegewisch and Heidi Hartmann consider these skill categories in a more recent report, Occupational Segregation and the Gender Wage Gap: A Job Half Done (January 2014, https://iwpr.org/wp-content/uploads/wpallimport/files/iwpr-export/publications/C419.pdf), finding that “the earnings penalty for working in predominantly female compared to predominantly male occupations is proportionately highest for both women and men working in occupations that require at least a four-year college or university degree.” Indeed, women in highly skilled “women's jobs” make only 71% of median hourly earnings of women who work in highly skilled “men's jobs.”
To improve equity in female-dominated jobs, one school of thought advocates replacing equal pay laws with laws that provide for pay equity or comparable worth for men and women. Comparable worth recognizes that some occupations traditionally done by women are underpaid simply because they are done by women. Comparable worth laws provide for equal pay if men's and women's jobs are comparable rather than identical. Workers of both sexes in occupations that have traditionally been filled by women would gain from the implementation of comparable worth. Forty-six states have taken some action to implement comparable worth, and Congress adopted a comparable worth measure in the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees has been particularly active in bargaining for comparable worth.
Activism continues on the federal level. The Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed the Democratic-controlled US House of Representatives in 2009 and was strongly supported by President Barack Obama (1961–), would strengthen the Equal Pay Act and make it more difficult for employers to pay women less than they pay men. The bill did not, however, have enough support to reach the US Senate floor for a vote. Reintroduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2011, the bill again stalled in the Senate under threat of a Republican filibuster (a tactic whereby a minority in the legislative body extends debate indefinitely, essentially killing a bill). A revised version of the Paycheck Fairness Act was introduced in March 2015 and again in April 2017; as of April 2018, it remained under consideration of the House and Senate committees to which it had been referred. Similarly, the US delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (1937–; D-DC) and the US senator Tom Harkin (1939–; D-IA) introduced the Fair Pay Act in April 2015 and again in April 2017. The bill seeks to prohibit wage discrimination based on sex, race, or national origin among workers in “equivalent jobs.” As of April 2018, this act was still in committee.
Poverty and Gender
The federal government defines poverty according to a poverty threshold, an income level that it determines yearly and that is used to calculate a variety of federal and state benefits. The poverty threshold depends on family size and the age of the householder. In 2018 a family of three was considered impoverished if its yearly income was less than $20,780 per year, and a family of five was considered impoverished if its yearly income was less than $29,420 per year (“2018 Poverty Guidelines for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia,” in “Annual Update of the HHS Poverty Guidelines,” Federal Register, vol. 83, no. 12, January 18, 2018, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2018-01-18/pdf/2018-00814.pdf).
According to data published by the US Census Bureau, the official poverty rate in 2016 was 12.7% (Historical Poverty Tables: People and Families—1959 to 2016, September 2017, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps/tables/time-series/historicalpoverty-people/hstpov2.xls). This number was only slightly higher than the rate in 2007 (12.5%), before the dramatic spike in poverty that accompanied the Great Recession and the long, slow economic recovery that followed. Poverty disproportionately affects women. In 2016, 14% of women were living below the poverty line, compared with 11.3% of men (US Census Bureau, September 2017, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps/tables/time-series/historical-poverty-people/hstpov7.xls). The number of women and men classified as impoverished has fluctuated over the decades, in keeping with economic cycles and statistical anomalies such as those discussed earlier in this article, but the percentage of women living in poverty has consistently outpaced that of men living in poverty since the 1960s. Likewise, families headed by women are far more likely than other families to be impoverished. Among all families, the poverty rate was 10.7% in 2016, but among families headed by a woman with no spouse present, the poverty rate was 28.8% (US Census Bureau, September 2017, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps/tables/time-series/historicalpoverty-people/hstpov2.xls). This disparity has also been consistent over the course of all the decades during which the Census Bureau has been tracking poverty.
Children are more likely to live in poverty than adults, in large part due to the prevalence of poverty among households headed by single mothers. According to the Census Bureau, in Historical Poverty Tables: People and Families—1959 to 2016 (September 8, 2017, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/income-poverty/historical-poverty-people.html), 18% of all children under the age of 18 years lived below the poverty threshold in 2016. This number was especially high among African American children, 30.8% of whom lived below the poverty line, and among Hispanic children, 26.6% of whom lived below the poverty line. In 2016 approximately 12.8 million related children under the age of 18 years lived below the poverty line, and more than 7.6 million (59.5%) of them were in female-headed households.
The Working Poor
In A Profile of the Working Poor, 2015 (April 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/working-poor/2015/pdf/home.pdf), the BLS notes that of the 43.1 million people living below the poverty line in 2015, 8.6 million were categorized as the “working poor.” The working poor are those who remain below the poverty line in spite of having spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (either working or looking for work) during a given year. This number was down from 9.5 million in 2014, but it was still higher than pre-recession levels. The ratio of the working poor to all individuals in the labor force was 5.6% in 2015, down slightly from 6.3% the previous year but still higher than the working-poor rate of 5.1% in 2007. Women were more likely than men to be among the working poor. Approximately 4.5 million women were categorized as working poor in 2015, for a working-poor rate of 6.3%, compared with 4.1 million men, whose working-poor rate was 5%.
According to the BLS, 4 million families with at least one member in the labor force for half the year or more lived in poverty in 2015. Among married-couple families with only one member in the labor force for at least half of the year, 8.5% were poor. Among nonmarital families, 9.6% of households maintained by men and 18.3% of households maintained by women numbered among the working poor.
There are two principal categories of government benefit programs: those that are means-tested, in which benefits are given to the poor based on an individual's or household's income in relation to the poverty threshold, and those that provide benefits regardless of an individual's or household's income. The primary programs in the first category are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF; a program that provides cash payments to the poorest Americans on a temporary basis), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; also known as the food stamp program), Supplemental Security Income (SSI; a program that provides cash assistance to the disabled), Medicaid (a state and federal health insurance program for low-income people), and the Earned Income Tax Credit (a program that provides tax refunds to those earning below certain amounts annually). The primary programs in the second category are Social Security (a program that provides retirement income and health care for older adults), Medicare (a federal health insurance program for people aged 65 years and older and people with disabilities), and unemployment insurance (a program that provides cash payments on a temporary basis to those who have lost their job).
Robert Greenstein of the CBPP considers in Commentary: How Effective Is the Safety Net? (February 6, 2013, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/2-6-13pov.pdf) the effectiveness of means-tested programs for the poor. Using a widely accepted National Academy of Sciences measure of poverty (which many advocates for the poor contend is more effective than the official government measure), Greenstein finds that “if the safety net hadn't existed in 2010, nearly 29 percent of Americans would have been poor, nearly twice the actual figure of about 15 percent.” Greenstein also notes that safety-net programs go beyond the straightforward reduction of poverty, pointing out that prior to the introduction of the food stamp program, malnutrition was as prevalent in some areas of the United States (such as the Mississippi delta, parts of Appalachia, and coastal South Carolina) as in developing countries. After the introduction of the food stamp program, symptoms of malnutrition virtually disappeared in the United States, and further research shows that food stamp participation in childhood leads to better health outcomes in adulthood. Additionally, research shows that participation in Medicaid correlates with better health, improved mortality statistics, and decreased levels of household debt and that the Earned Income Tax Credit spurs significant numbers of poor single parents to seek employment, leading to better outcomes for their children in school and later in life.
Nevertheless, many advocates for the poor point out that TANF has lost much of the power that its predecessor program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), had to reduce poverty among families. As part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, which transformed the AFDC into TANF, states were granted broad control in administering TANF benefits, and TANF benefits were tied to adults' work participation. Thus, states whose elected representatives seek to limit government spending on behalf of the needy have been able to significantly reduce TANF benefit levels over time. Meanwhile, because a household head's ability to collect benefits depends on his or her actively looking for and eventually finding a job, TANF fails to help those whose inability to find work is caused by conditions of high unemployment, such as during the Great Recession.
According to Ife Floyd, Ladonna Pavetti, and Liz Schott of the CBPP, in TANF Reaching Few Poor Families (December 13, 2017, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/6-16-15tanf.pdf), the annual TANF budget has been frozen since 1996, such that benefits have not even kept pace with inflation. To address the crisis of the Great Recession, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, which allocated $5 billion for a TANF emergency fund for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. When the emergency fund expired, however, in September 2010, TANF funding returned to its original level.
Floyd, Pavetti, and Schott note that in 2015 TANF provided cash assistance for only 23 of every 100 families in poverty, which was a marked decrease from 1996, the year TANF was first enacted, when 68 of every 100 families in poverty received these benefits. Furthermore, the researchers explain that TANF has been far less successful than the AFDC at helping families climb out of deep poverty. In 1995 the AFDC lifted 2.5 million children out of deep poverty. By comparison, in 2014 TANF lifted only 420,000 children out of deep poverty.
Also, because SNAP is available to almost all individuals and families whose gross and net incomes fall below certain thresholds and who have assets below certain limits, this program responded more effectively to the Great Recession. Participation in SNAP climbed sharply during the severe economic downturn, and the ARRA increased SNAP benefits for all households by 13.6% between 2009 and 2011. Following smaller increases in 2012 and 2013, the SNAP benefit increases provided by the ARRA expired in November 2013.
In “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation and Costs” (April 6, 2018, http://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap), the US Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, the agency responsible for overseeing SNAP, reports that approximately 26.3 million people were served by the program in fiscal year (FY) 2007. During the Great Recession, as long-term unemployment became widespread, the SNAP rolls expanded dramatically, from 33.5 million SNAP participants in FY 2009 to a peak of 47.6 million in FY 2013. In FY 2013, 23.1 million households accessed SNAP benefits, and the average value of each household's monthly benefit was $274.98. Both participation and benefits declined in the years that followed. In FY 2017, 20.9 million households accessed SNAP, receiving an average monthly benefit of $254.38 (“Annual Summary of Food and Nutrition Service Programs,” in Program Data: Overview, US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, January 2018, http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/pd/annual.xls).
Dorothy Rosenbaum and Brynne Keith-Jennings of the CBPP indicate in SNAP Caseload and Spending Declines Accelerated in 2016 (January 27, 2017, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/7-29-16fa.pdf) that although the decline in SNAP caseloads was attributable in large part to economic recovery, many people were also being cut from the program due to the reinstatement of a three-month time limit on benefits, which had been waived in many states when unemployment was at its highest. When the cutoff took effect again in April 2016, an estimated 500,000 adults lost their SNAP benefits. Rosenbaum and Keith-Jennings explain, “To the extent that recent and future SNAP caseload declines reflect improving economic circumstances among low-income households, they are welcome. However, the large declines seen in April 2016…are troublesome. The loss of benefits will likely cause serious hardship among many, since the average income of those potentially affected is less than 20 percent of the poverty line while they're receiving SNAP.”
Families that lack access to adequate food and nutrition are classified as “food insecure.” The Food and Nutrition Service subdivides all food-insecure households into those that experience low food security (those that struggle to provide enough food for the entire household during the year) and very low food security (those in which some household members may be forced to reduce their food intake due to insufficient financial resources).
In 2016, 12.3% (15.6 million) of all households in the United States were food insecure (Alisha Coleman-Jensen et al., “Table 2. Households by Food Security Status and Selected Household Characteristics, 2016,” in Household Food Security in the United States in 2016, US Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service, September 2017, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/84973/err-237.pdf?v=42979). Households with children were more likely to be food insecure than those without: 16.5% of households with children under the age of 18 years were food insecure in 2016, compared with 10.5% of households with no children. Single-parent households were significantly more likely to be food insecure than married-couple households, and female-headed single-parent households were more often food insecure than those headed by males. Among married-couple households, the rate of food insecurity was 9.9%. Whereas 21.7% of male-headed households with no spouse present experienced food insecurity in 2016, 31.6% of all such female-headed households were food insecure in the same year, with more than one out of 10 (10.5%) reporting very low food security.
The Food and Nutrition Service oversees other important but much smaller means-tested food programs, including the National School Lunch Program, which provides free and reduced-price lunches to children based on household income. In FY 2017, 30 million children accessed the program, 67.1% of whom were given free lunches and 6.5% of whom were given reduced-price lunches (Program Data: Overview, US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, January 2018, http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/pd/annual.xls). Because of the prevalence of poverty and food insecurity in female-headed single-parent households, this program offers a particularly important resource for women.
The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is also a vital resource for low-income women and their children. WIC provides low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breast-feeding women and children up to the age of five years with food, nutrition education, and health care consultation. In FY 2017 the program served 7.3 million individuals, adding an average monthly supplement of $41.22 to their food budget (Program Data: Overview, US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, January 2018, http://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/pd/annual.xls).
In February 2018, as President Donald Trump (1946–) unveiled his proposed federal budget for FY 2019, it appeared that TANF, SNAP, and other means-tested assistance programs were facing drastic cuts. According to Sharon Parrott et al. of the CBPP, in “Trump Budget Deeply Cuts Health, Housing, Other Assistance for Low- and Moderate-Income Families” (February 14, 2018, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/2-14-18bud.pdf), the proposed budget included cuts to TANF and SNAP amounting to $21 billion and $213 billion, respectively, over the coming decade. The researchers warn, “The cuts would affect a broad range of low- and moderate-income people, including parents, children, seniors, and people with disabilities. Taken together, the cuts are far deeper than any ever enacted and would deepen poverty and hardship and swell the ranks of the uninsured.” Although the final details of the budget were subject to negotiation by Congress in the weeks and months that followed, the Republican president's proposal signaled his intention to radically limit these programs.
Poverty among older Americans has declined since the establishment of Medicare in 1965 and the subsequent increases in Social Security benefits (the Social Security program was originally established in 1935). In addition, SSI has become available to more disabled people, many of whom are elderly. According to Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar, the poverty rate for people aged 65 years and older was 9.3% in 2016, which was slightly higher than the year before (Income and Poverty in the United States: 2016, US Census Bureau, September 2017, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2017/demo/P60-259.pdf). As in past years, this figure was significantly lower than the poverty rates for children under the age of 18 years (18%) and adults aged 18 to 64 years (11.6%).
Elderly women are more likely than elderly men to live in poverty for a variety of reasons. Women typically earn less than men (as the gender wage gap illustrates) and take more time out of the paid workforce to raise children. In turn, they accumulate less retirement savings than men and receive smaller pensions. They also live longer, are more likely to be widowed and thus to live alone, and are more likely than elderly men to raise their grandchildren in place of parents. According to Semega, Fontenot, and Kollar, 10.6% of women aged 65 years and older lived in poverty in 2016, compared with 7.6% of men the same age.
Social Security protects senior citizens from a drastic reduction in income at retirement. It was originally intended to be supplemented by other sources of income, such as pensions and income from assets, but over the decades Social Security has become a bigger share of many older Americans' incomes. According to the CBPP, in Policy Basics: Top Ten Facts about Social Security (August 14, 2017, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/8-8-16socsec.pdf), Social Security benefits lifted 22.1 million Americans out of poverty in 2015. In the absence of Social Security, an estimated 40.5% of Americans over the age of 65 years would live below the poverty line. (These CBPP estimates are based on 2016 census figures.) The percentage is even higher for elderly women, 44.3% of whom would live in poverty if not for Social Security benefits. In 2016 women in their 60s and 70s represented 54% of Social Security beneficiaries, while women in their 80s made up 60% of beneficiaries and those in their 90s made up 70%. Significantly too, because women are much more likely to outlive their spouses, they made up 97% of Social Security survivor beneficiaries in 2016.
With the decline of private pension programs for retirees in the 21st century, elderly Americans may become more likely to live in poverty in the future. In previous decades employers typically offered defined-benefit pension plans, which were funded by some combination of worker and employer contributions and provided fixed payments based on years of service to the company and other factors. In the 21st century private pensions are more commonly defined-contribution plans, in which payments are based on the total amount of money contributed by the worker and/or employer and on the success of the plan's investment strategy in the stock and bond markets. Not only are employers generally contributing less money to pension plans but also retirees are much less able to count on a set amount of income from private pensions, due to the ups and downs of the stock market.
In Shortchanged in Retirement: Continuing Challenges to Women's Financial Future (March 2016, https://www.nirsonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/final_shortchanged_retirement_report_2016.pdf), Jennifer Erin Brown et al. of the National Institute on Retirement Security report that women have been participating in employer-sponsored retirement plans at the same rate as men since 2006. In 2012 this participation rate was 46%. Even so, women continue to accumulate less retirement wealth over the course of their careers, due to the gender pay gap. The researchers indicate that in 2010 men received $17,856 in median retirement income from a pension, whereas women received $12,000 (33% less).
Children living in single-parent households are far more likely to be poor than children living in two-parent households. Timothy S. Grall of the Census Bureau notes in Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2015 (January 2018, https://www.census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2018/demo/P60-262.pdf) that in 2015 there were 13.6 million parents who had custody of children under the age of 21 years while the other parent lived elsewhere. Mothers accounted for 80.4% of all custodial parents and were nearly twice as likely as custodial fathers to have incomes below the poverty line (29.2%, compared with 16.7%). Half (50.2%, or 6.8 million) of the 13.6 million custodial parents had either a legal or an informal child support agreement with the other parent, usually requiring the noncustodial parent to make payments to the custodial parent. The total amount owed in child support payments in 2015 was $33.7 billion, but only 59.8% was received. Among those who received child support payments, the average amount received for the year was $3,447, or $287 per month. The proportion of custodial parents who were owed child support and who received the full amount owed was 43.5%. Among custodial parents living below the poverty line who received the full amount of child support owed, these payments represented 58% of their average income.
Homelessness is difficult to measure, but the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attempts to do so by conducting counts of the homeless population simultaneously across the country on one night each January. In The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress—Part 2: Estimates of Homelessness in the United States (December 2017, https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/2016-AHAR-Part-2.pdf), which is based on these point-in-time counts and on data from shelters and other service providers, HUD notes that 1.4 million individuals used an emergency shelter or transitional housing in 2016. Women are underrepresented in this count, however, because it does not factor in women in domestic violence shelters. On the night when the point-in-time count was conducted, approximately 37.1% of the sheltered homeless population was female and 62.9% was male. In 2016 an estimated 481,410 people (about one-third of all people experiencing sheltered homelessness) used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program as part of a family with children. Among this group, more than three-quarters (77.6%) of the adults were women.