Last week, the front-page news from the U.S. Census Bureau was alarming: nearly 40 million Americans are poor -- an increase of 2.6 million people in 2008. For a family of four, that means making ends meet on less than $22,025 a year.
What didn't get as much attention is who these poor people are: Nearly 56 percent are women or girls.
Almost a fifth of all girls are poor. Thirteen percent of adult women live in poverty. Almost twice as many elderly women as elderly men are impoverished.
The problem is worse for families headed by single mothers. Nearly a third lives in poverty - a number that shoots up to 40 percent for black and Hispanic families headed by single mothers.
In recent months, the media has focused on the plight of older, white men during the recession. While it's true that many have lost good jobs, the picture of who is struggling is more complicated.
New data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that single mothers are almost twice as likely as married men to be unemployed. One of every eight women who are the sole breadwinners in their families is unemployed compared with one of every 16 married men.
The message is clear: Too many American women are poor and the recession has been a hardship for the most vulnerable among them.
How can we change this picture? At Washington Area Women's Foundation, the only public foundation solely focused on improving the lives of women and girls in the greater Washington, D.C. region, we believe we have an answer.
Our multi-year, $5 million Stepping Stones program invests in nonprofits in the greater Washington, D.C. region that provide job training, financial literacy and child care programs for low-income women. During the past four years, the program has served 19,000 women, many of whom are raising families on their own.
Stepping Stones has helped these women increase their income and assets by a total of $22 million in just four years. As the economy tanked in the first half of 2009, the demand for financial education and counseling services nearly doubled, resulting in more than 3,000 women receiving these services. That surge is a direct consequence of the recession.
Participating in Stepping Stones has enabled local women to save a total of $2 million, thanks largely to learning about how to claim the federal Earned Income Tax Credit, a vital tool in reducing poverty. Even with the retrenching job market, more than 70 women involved in the Stepping Stones program found good jobs - some in non-traditional fields such as cable installation and environmental surveying - resulting in a combined income boost of $600,000. And more than 60 program participants purchased homes this year.
These women are on their way to better lives and financial independence. The success of these efforts is proof that investing in job training, financial literacy and child care programs yields big dividends by lifting women out of poverty.
It is significant that women's foundations across the country are leading many of these efforts. Over the last 20 years, women's funds have invested nearly $500 million nationally and together have more than $456 million to invest in programs and solutions to fight root causes of poverty. Now, several women's foundations have banded together to launch a new national endeavor called Women's Economic Security Campaign (WESC) to raise awareness about how policy affects women in poverty.
The strategy is simple and effective. When women with resources come together to help the less fortunate among them, families thrive, communities are strengthened and as a nation we all benefit.
Phyllis Caldwell is president of Washington Area Women's Foundation.