Women in Poverty & The ‘American Nightmare’


A Story of Economic Oppression

Author Leslie Woods
Author Leslie Woods

When Americans think about “oppression,” we’re inclined to go straight to civil and human rights. We think of voting rights and voter intimidation, of warrantless wiretaps and law enforcement dispersing crowds of peacefully-gathered demonstrators. We think of countries where citizens do not have freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, or petition. In short, we think of the First Amendment. We do not usually think of the economy.

Economic Oppression

However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the average citizen that our economy is designed to oppress huge groups of people. Our economy is designed to trap whole families in poverty, generation after generation, by denying access to education, by failing to protect good wages and working conditions, including work supports, and by incarcerating a whole generation of young men for the profit of shareholders. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on women, who are disproportionately oppressed by the economy, but truly, economic oppression is a pervasive problem.

The American Dream upon which our economy rests — the belief that any person who works hard can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get ahead — is a fallacy. There are the few outliers, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. For most low-income people living in the U.S. today, the American Dream is not possible.


It is becoming increasingly apparent to the average citizen that our economy is designed to oppress huge groups of people.

Economic oppression comes in many forms – the gender wage gap, lack of access to education and training, unavailability of health care, hunger and food deserts, predatory lending, mass incarceration, lack of financial education and inaccessibility of banking services – but the most obvious result of economic oppression, to which all of these issues ultimately contribute, is poverty.

Poverty is cyclical, both in the way it traps individuals and in the ways its causes and effects circle and feed each other. Of the issues named above, there’s a perpetual chicken-and-egg problem: which are causes and which are symptoms? In reality, all of these injustices feed each other, creating the structural poverty that plagues U.S. society.

Poverty by the Numbers: Income Inequality and the Wage Gap

Leslie - Fist of MoneyAccording to the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent data, poverty overwhelms over 45 million people in the United States today. Most of them are women and children: six out of ten poor adults in the U.S. are women, and one in seven women in the U.S. live in poverty. According to a National Women’s Law Center report that breaks down Census data by gender, more than four in ten poor women live in extreme poverty – below half of the poverty line, which, for a family of three in 2013 (one adult and two children), was $18,769. About one in five children in the U.S. lives in poverty and six in ten poor kids live in households headed by a woman. Last year, the poverty rate for women aged 65 and older rose significantly.

While the cycle of systemic poverty can never be reduced to one or two of its components, I want to focus in this article on income inequality and the wage gap. I believe the poverty cycle begins and could be ended, at least for the most part, with jobs and wages. Solving these two fundamental injustices would have a significant, though not complete, impact in reducing poverty in the United States.

Income inequality refers to the gap between the top and the bottom of the income scale. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) “The State of Working America,” income growth from 1947-1973 was about the same at all levels of the income scale. The poorest 20 percent of families enjoyed economic gains at about the same rate as the top 20 percent. However, since 1979, the rate of increase for the bottom 90 percent has slowed, and the bottom 20 percent has suffered outright stagnation and loss. By contrast, the top ten percent’s dramatic rate of increase has handed them a disproportionately large share of the overall growth of the economy.


It is hard for those of us who have not experienced poverty first-hand – myself included – to conceive of the pain and anxiety a woman feels when she cannot afford to fill a prescription for a sick child.

According to a new study by EPI, in the period from 1979-2007, “the top 1 percent took home well over half (53.9%) of the total increase in U.S. income. Over this period, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by 18.9 percent. Simultaneously, the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much – by 200.5 percent.” Today, almost two thirds of this nation’s wealth — 63.1% — is owned by those in the top five percent of the income scale. In 2013, “households in the top five percent received nearly the same share of income (22.2 percent) as households in the bottom 60 percent combined (26.0 percent).” This is what we call inequality.

Pay gap - neither poverty nor richesThe second injustice is the wage gap between women and men. The latest statistics show that, on average, women earn about 78 cents for every dollar earned by their male colleagues. Black women make 64 cents to a white man’s dollar, and Hispanic women make 56 cents. When the Equal Pay Act was first enacted in 1963, a woman who worked full-time earned, on average, 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Over the decades, the gap has narrowed, but slowly. Economist Evelyn Murphy, president of The Wage Project, estimates that over a lifetime (47 years of full-time work) this gap amounts to a loss in wages of $700,000 for a female high school graduate, $1.2 million for a female college graduate, and $2 million for a professional school graduate. Predictably, this wage gap is felt most keenly at the bottom, where retail, child care, and domestic workers, who are primarily women, are disproportionately underpaid and rarely receive benefits.

Poverty Means Hard Choices

But these are just numbers and it is very hard to wrap our heads around what this really means in the lives of people struggling every day.

Photo Credit: Public Domain, Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Photo Credit: Public Domain, Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

It is hard for those of us who have not experienced poverty first-hand – myself included – to conceive of the pain and anxiety a woman feels when she cannot afford to fill a prescription for a sick child. It is difficult for me to grasp how she chooses between paying the rent and putting food on the table. It is hard for me to imagine relying only on an emergency room for medical care. It is impossible to envision leaving my sons in an unstable child-care situation so that I can work a minimum wage job (or two or three) that fails to cover my family’s expenses anyway. It is alarming and unjust that, at the bottom of the income scale, a poor woman pays more for just about everything – food, transportation, financial services, credit – than I, who have access to big grocery stores and fancy banks. Poor women face colossal odds and painful choices as they work to try to make a decent life for their families.

There are important support programs that seek to address this need, but as Congress continues to enact huge budget cuts, thereby systematically dismantling the social safety net, the gap grows even wider. And while the social safety net is essential here and now, for catching people when they fall – losing a job or receiving a serious medical diagnosis – it is not a long-term solution. It does not address the cultural evil that we have institutionalized through our public policy. By failing to protect wages and workers’ rights, by allowing the public education system to fail the poorest and most vulnerable when they are most in need, by structuring society so that it is more expensive to be poor, we are all complicit in the cycle of vicious poverty that traps families and denies access to any component of the “American Dream.”

Capitol Hill Battles

During my tenure in the Office of Public Witness, there have been occasional efforts to address these inequities in our system, one of which was successful. In 2009, the 111th Congress passed, and the President signed, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act to strengthen female workers’ rights to challenge pay discrimination after the fact.

Leslie - Capitol BuildingBut other bills have stalled. In April 2014, in a vote of 53-44 that fell short of the 60 votes needed, the Senate failed to end debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill that would amend and improve the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by strengthening anti-discrimination laws, protecting workers who inquire into colleagues’ salaries, and strengthening penalties for equal-pay violations. Nor has Congress passed the Healthy Families Act, which would create a minimum labor standard allowing workers to earn up to seven days annually of paid, job-protected sick leave for illness or to care for a sick family member. Though not likely to move in the current political climate, such legislation would make important strides for the rights and benefits of low-wage workers, and especially of women in the workforce.

And in addition to these initiatives, which specifically seek to address pay inequity, it is my growing belief that one of the most significant barriers to reforming situations of injustice in our nation is our election system. With recent Supreme Court decisions, the power of private, dark money has become a virtually unstoppable force in electoral politics. We have allowed our nation’s government to transform from a democracy to an oligarchy, where a selected and wealthy few have immense power to sway public policy. I believe that we will not achieve comprehensive reforms until we first deal with and remove the pernicious influence of private, unaccountable money in politics.

Ripping the Safety Net

Even as we advocate for elected leaders to enact remedies to these root injustices imbedded in our system, the injustices themselves have been exacerbated by the recession, the sluggish recovery, and the recently enacted sequester cuts that have indiscriminately cut programs that serve the most vulnerable people in our society. The social safety net is supposed to be there to catch struggling families and individuals in times of trouble. Our economic system needs to be redesigned so that the safety net can be just that – a safety net – and not a way of life. Poor people cannot afford basic necessities because they do not, and many cannot, earn enough to meet their basic needs.

Leslie - IOU BankThis is a travesty of justice. No person who works for a living should need to depend on government programs to sustain themselves and their families. Employers must be held accountable and required to provide good jobs and living wages and benefits. Profit of shareholders should never be a priority over the livelihood of workers.

Promoters of the self-made American Dream would have us believe that any child born in this country has an equal chance at wealth and success, but the reality is different: we have structured our economy so that, despite rare exceptions, upward mobility is now virtually impossible to achieve for the average person.

Despite our national love affair with rugged individualism, those who are born into poverty are less likely to finish high school and more likely to live in poverty as adults than their young peers raised in affluence. The welfare state no longer exists. We have cut away many work supports for low-wage workers and are threatening more; the working poor is a real class of people who are struggling to tread water, and were doing so even before the Great Recession. These failures are a direct result of the heedless, intensified individualism of our time and the elevation of love of self above love of neighbor.

Smaller World, Bigger Responsibility

World in Hands ShutterstockSo, as citizens and as people of faith, what is our responsibility? I invite you to join with me in challenging the rhetoric of scarcity that saturates our national debate. It argues for budget cuts for the poor and tax breaks for the wealthy, when what we need are investments in people, not ideology. We are in dire need of a reality check: this is the richest nation in the world and there is easily enough for everyone, if only we have the political will to make sure that everyone has enough. And “enough” means ensuring not only that no one has too little, but also that no one has too much. We have much to learn from the story of the Exodus, where God created manna in the wilderness and instructed the Israelites to gather only what they needed for that day. Although some gathered more and some gathered less, they all ended up with the same amount. God’s world of abundance, we must learn, is not a world of extravagance, but a world of “enough.”

The fabric of our nation cannot afford the kinds of cuts that Congress has been enacting –and which promise to become an even more prominent feature of public policy in the coming months. As PC(USA) Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons wrote to Members of Congress during one of the recent debates over spending cuts and deficit reduction:

“I, therefore, urge Congress to address this grave concern of long-term deficits by making decisions based on principle rather than politics. We abhor the prospect of leaving a legacy of mounting debt to future generations, and likewise believe that it would be equally irresponsible to leave the same descendants a legacy of increasing poverty and inequality.”

Indeed, legacies of poverty and inequality are more troubling to me than short-term deficits. The draconian measures under discussion will only result in more disparity, more desperation, more poverty. We are called by Jesus to love our neighbor, which means caring about what happens in our society and in the world. The individualistic trend of hording money and possessions will only lead to more brokenness in a shrinking world that is increasingly interconnected. It is our collective responsibility – and it is in our own economic and spiritual self-interest – to ensure that everyone else is doing well. A commitment to the common good is not only our Biblical calling, but also a pragmatic approach toward the just and safe ordering of society.

photo of MLK in birmingham jailIn his “Remaining Awake through the Great Revolution” address delivered at Morehouse College in 1959, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. captured this theological and practical truth: “In the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality. As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I possess a billion dollars… Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.”

So, in the spirit of making sure that everyone is where they ought to be, we need to build a movement for reform.

  • We need to reform the labor market so that jobs provide a living, health coverage (absent a national health plan), paid time to care for family members, and other necessities of life.
  • We need to remove inherent sexism from our national policies, ensuring that all work is valued as important contributions to society – work that takes place both inside and outside the home.
  • We need to reform our education system so that every child, no matter their neighborhood, race, gender, or income level, is served with equity. In practice, this will mean providing more resources and effective attention on poorer kids; after all, you can’t learn if you haven’t eaten, and it’s hard to do homework if you have no home.
  • We need to join in bipartisan efforts to reform the criminal justice system, removing any opportunity to profit from incarceration.

In short, we need a social movement. Any one of these policies alone will not suffice, but together and with the broad and comprehensive view of the problem, we can transform our society and ourselves.


For most low-income people living in the U.S. today, the American Dream is not possible.

As I write this, I am heartsick that we live in a world so broken that this kind of change is needed. But I believe that change is possible and that we are called to be God’s agents in this transformation. It is my prayer that, together, we will build a movement for social change that will eradicate systemic poverty. It is my prayer that political rhetoric and public policy will show more respect for people than for profit. And most especially, it is my prayer that no woman in my children’s generation will ever have to choose between providing a roof and feeding her family.


AUTHOR BIO: Leslie Woods is the Representative for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC. The Office of Public Witness is the public policy, information, and advocacy office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!

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