The Stateswoman Archive

Poverty is Still Feminized as Gender Discrimination Persists

by Sharyn Wisniewski

It is really tough to be poor in our society. It’s worse if you’re a woman. And doubly worse if you’re a woman with children.

It takes money to buy nourishing food, to find an affordable place to live in a safe and healthy neighborhood, to have a dependable car and to leave your kids in a quality day care center when you go to work.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1978, Diana Pearce, a visiting researcher at the University of Wisconsin, published a paper noting that poverty in the United States was becoming “feminized.” The trend continues. As we mark the world-wide “16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence,” economic discrimination as a form of violence belongs in the discussion.

The financial and social costs of this “gender discrimination” are enormous. It not only harms mothers, children and whole families, it also cripples our state’s and nation’s economies. The reverse, ensuring that women and men enjoy equivalent rights and have equal access to education, jobs, property, and holding public office, reduces child mortality, improves public health, slows population growth and strengthens sustainable economic development.

How are we faring here in Wisconsin? Consider the following statistics from the November 2002 Status of Women in Wisconsin Report, issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Washington, D.C., and co-published by the Women’s Fund of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, with support from the Wisconsin Women’s Network.

* Wisconsin women are more likely to be in the paid workforce than women in all but two states (Minnesota and Nebraska).
* Wisconsin women are paid 70 cents for every dollar paid a man. This compares to a national average of 73 cents and 77 cents in our neighboring state of Minnesota.
* Despite the fact so many women here work, the 30 cents per dollar gap between the wages of women and men in Wisconsin falls among the worst third of the states.
* Wisconsin women lack many important reproductive rights and resources (crucial to their ability to control the timing and circumstances of giving birth), and as a result, the state ranks 48th out of 51 on the reproductive rights composite index.
* Wisconsin does not require that insurance companies provide comprehensive contraceptive coverage, further eroding women’s control over their reproductive lives. (Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager’s recent opinion that failure by insurance companies to cover contraceptives is discriminatory, is a needed step in the right direction.)

In year 2000 dollars, Wisconsin women’s median annual earnings for full-time year-round work were $26,000, compared to the US median of $26,884. Amazingly, women living across the Mississippi River in our neighboring state of Minnesota earned median annual fulltime wages of $30,659—a whopping $4,659 more. If Wisconsin’s median earnings for women were $4,659 higher, it would not only improve the lives of women and their families here, the added tax base and purchasing power would also boost our state’s economy and budget.

The Self-Sufficiency Standard (2000), published by the Wisconsin Women’s Network and authored by researcher Diana Pearce, found that the poverty rate for single mothers in Wisconsin is 30.4 percent. Many more women have difficulty making ends meet because the cost of basic needs here far exceeds the federal poverty line. A single working mother of two pre-school children in Dane County would need an income of $47,568, or $3,964 per month, to cover housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, miscellaneous expenses and taxes. In Wisconsin, single women with children actually earn a median $21,100.

The poorest women in Wisconsin, those who rely on W-2 benefits and work programs, need financial assistance for child care and increased education and training opportunities so that they can leave welfare for work. As women use new skills to increase their income and invest more in child health and education, they create a ripple effect from one generation to the next.
Wisconsin’s statistics are pretty sobering, and ought to make our government and business leaders “wake up and smell the coffee,” as Ann Landers used to say. Our state leaders are putting forth ideas on how to grow Wisconsin’s economy. Talking about ways to make sure women have equal opportunity to support their families and contribute to the economy belongs in that conversation.

This op-ed appeared in The Capital Times on December 4, 2003, and in the December 2003 issue of the Wisconsin Women’s Network’s Newsletter, The Stateswoman. It was one of a series of op-eds written by members of Madison’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Coalition.