State of the Union Taboo: Women's Poverty

President Obama's State of the Union address was heartening for its forward looking focus on collaboration, innovation, and sustainable growth but there was a missed opportunity to pay attention to those at the bottom of the economic pyramid, especially women of color and their families, who are being left out of the current policy debate.

While there is much to applaud about President Obama's speech -- its calls for increased civility and investments in education, alternative energy, and infrastructure without back-peddling on health care, there was only one brief allusion to the millions who are being underserved: "our most vulnerable citizens."

"I recognize that some in this chamber have already proposed deeper cuts, and I'm willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens."

Despite intimations to the contrary, many of us working in the social justice movement share the President's concern for a more affordable and efficient government, one that controls spending and takes into consideration future debt burdens. But we all need to heed his warning that the spending constraints must not be made at the expense of the most vulnerable. Or as Senator Barbara Mikulski said about moving forward in our politically divided country -- we cannot throw women and children under the bus.

If the United States is truly to become the innovative country of the future, it must be one that values and builds on the contributions of all its citizens. And that includes low-income families, single-headed households, and those headed by immigrant women and women of color.

In 2009, 4 out of 10 African-American and Latino households headed by single women lived in poverty -- a figure nearly double the number of households headed by single white women.

To overcome glaring disparities and put all our citizens on a more sound footing will require investments in three critical areas:
  • Job Creation -- as Paul Krugman and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and others have argued, now is the time to offer public jobs to get people back to work and grow the economy; the stimulus package that has been branded "a failure" by the right, actually created millions of new jobs; the Council of Economic Advisors estimates that ARRA saved or created between 2.7 and 3.7 million jobs;
  • Education -- there are many examples of effective programs that are providing training for low-income women; one such example is LIFETIME (Low-Income Families' Empowerment through Education) a grassroots organization committed to helping low-income parents acquire higher education under the motto "from GED to PhD." Upon earning a college degree, 90 percent of parents receiving welfare get jobs earning enough to exit the welfare rolls. By contrast, less than 50 percent of parents who complete work-first programs get jobs.
  • Child Care -- the most important investment would be a national push to make child care accessible and affordable to working families, especially among the working poor who often turn to relatives and neighbors for unreliable support; Studies show that single mothers who receive child care subsidies are 40 percent more likely to be employed after two years than single mothers who do not receive subsidies.

Lifting low-income women out of poverty is a cost-saver in the long run. The gender wage gap costs an average woman almost a half a million dollars in income over her working years, according to Jessica Arons at the Center for American Progress. More equitable pay for married women would mean that their family incomes would rise by nearly six percent, and fewer families would live in poverty. For single working mothers, family incomes would increase by nearly 17 percent, and poverty rates for their families would be cut in half, from 25.3 percent to 12.6 percent. Imagine the increased contributions in tax revenue and consumer spending that a more economically secure population would ensure.

The president recalled the strength that comes from the rich diversity -- in so many ways -- of this country, which often results in a cacophony of different groups arguing single-mindedly for their own points of view. Democracy is indeed "messy," as he phrased it, and not always easy. But our diversity has also been the driver of the innovation and optimism that have been the hallmarks of this country throughout our history.

So let's not overlook investing in our most vulnerable citizens -- they have the potential to fuel our recovery and drive the economy of the future.