President Obama's 2015 Women's History Month Proclamation recognized the contributions that women in the United States are making to the economy. It also highlighted benefits of their participation in the workforce to their families. It also recognized that we need to do much more to support working women.
Policies that support women's ability to work are critical to moving women and their children out of poverty. This is important because work is the best pathway out of poverty, which disproportionately affects women. The national poverty rate was 15.8 percent in 2013 (the most recent data available), according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national poverty rate for women is more than 20 percent. Among households headed by women only, it is more than 30 percent.
In Bread for the World Institute's 2015 Hunger Report, we shared Debra's story:
Debra (a pseudonym), 30, a single mother of three boys, ages 7, 5, and 2, was struggling not just to put food on the table but also a roof over her family's head. The end of the Great Recession has not given great relief to the millions of low-income families that continue to struggle. Lacking adequate childcare and having only a high school education made it almost impossible for Debra to secure a job with a living wage.
After a long struggle, Debra was able to enroll in Bright Beginnings, the only child and family development center in Washington, D.C., that serves homeless children and their families exclusively. Soon after, she started attending college while also working as a server in restaurants. The evening care program at Bright Beginnings made it possible for her to juggle both school and work. Bright Beginnings also hosted a job fair for parents of its students; Debra landed a job as a teller at a Bank of America branch.
Programs like Bright Beginnings alleviate a major source of anxiety for homeless mothers by providing their children with a safe, secure, and nurturing learning environment while they try to stabilize their lives. Unfortunately these types of programs are few and far between.
In 2014, Debra graduated from the University of the Potomac with a degree in accounting. She hopes this will lead to a better job soon and finally put an end to the homelessness she has experienced for much of her adult life. Debra was lucky to enroll in a homeless program that provides child care. Many women aren't.
Policies in the United States simply have not kept up with the increasing participation of women in the workforce. There continues to be a significant wage gap between men and women doing the same work. Women are also much more likely than men to work in low-paying jobs.
Necessities such as child care are left to families to sort out. Many families must cobble together various childcare arrangements to ensure that their children are safe when they are too young to attend school. High-quality care provided by trained professionals in early childhood development is expensive for all families. For low-income families, child care is often a major part of the family budget. Childcare subsidies can help, but these reach as few as one in six families that are eligible under federal law. Yet they more than pay for themselves. A study in Denmark, for example, found that the cost of government spending to support child care was outweighed by the contributions to the national tax base of women who could continue to work.
One of the reasons that issues such as child care continue to be a struggle many women have to face alone is because women's experiences or perspectives are frequently invisible to policymakers. Women are woefully underrepresented in policymaking -- only about 20 percent of the U.S. Congress is made up of women. To support women's participation in the workforce, it is important to understand the specific barriers and challenges they face. Policies that do not apply a gender lens will not succeed in improving outcomes for women. The statistics are clear: A consequence of discrimination against women is higher poverty rates.