Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poor Women in Rich Countries: All the rest

While each of the seven countries studied in the book Poor Women in Rich Countries is different, some patterns became very clear as I read. As I list them you may well think, "That's just common sense." It seems that way to me. At the same time, I believe this common sense can give new perspective on persistent problems. Here's what I saw:

Being unemployed or underemployed for any significant portion of your life puts you and your family at risk for poverty. If you are not fully invested in the labor market for your entire adult life, you are at much greater risk for poverty. The details of the risk vary from country to country, but the patterns are the same. Even if not being invested for a lifetime in the labor market doesn't make you poor, it is likely to put you in a position where one serious mishap may make you poor. As a recap, who is at most risk for poverty?
  • The unemployed
  • The underemployed
  • The precariously or low-wage employed
  • Immigrants
  • The sick, injured, or disabled
  • Older workers and the elderly
  • Young workers in a bad economy
  • The unskilled or uneducated
  • Lone parents
  • Large families
You may have noticed I left out women and mothers even though this book was primarily about lone mothers and elderly women. To see why, let's look at the common consequences of choosing to become a mother:
  • Most women leave or delay employment or education to have children--often because there is no good alternative.
  • Many women work part time and low paying jobs to allow them to care for children.
  • Women provide most of the child care after divorces or separations without receiving economic security (in all forms) equal to what they would have had in a continued marriage.
  • Women risk injury, sickness, and disability every time they bear a child.
What do these things result in?
  • Many women have less education and work experience than their contemporary men because they chose to provide our society with children and to dedicate their efforts to raising those children. This means they earn less money over their lifetimes.
  • Many women receive fewer benefits toward retirement, healthcare, etc. that are provided by employers contingent on employment (and often on full time or skilled employment).
  • Many women receive fewer state benefits related to employment (like Social Security in the U.S.)
  • Many women receive fewer state benefits offered as incentives toward employment.
In short, most mothers are dependent on others to have any sense of economic security. When the state effectively provides this security, poverty rates among mothers are significantly reduced and can be nearly as low as among other groups, and occasionally lower than some other groups. When the state doesn't provide this security, or has policies that exacerbate the natural problems encountered by choosing motherhood, women have higher risk of poverty than other groups, and lone mothers and elderly women tend to be at highest risk.

It is clear that the solutions are hard. Every country tries different things to reduce poverty, and success varies. There are many competing interests and ideologies. Countries like the U.S. and Germany have followed the male-breadwinner model for combating poverty. While helping some groups, mothers who are divorced, widowed, or never married (for whatever reason) are generally disadvantaged (or at least less benefited) by many policies. The U.K. and Sweden (and others) have followed a full adult employment model where many benefits are geared toward encouraging every adult to work. Many of these policies disadvantage (or benefit less) mothers because mothers require time out of the labor market to bear and raise children.

I do not have answers. It is clear that they must be developed within specific contexts and real constraints. What I am convinced of is that we can measure how much we really value things, as a society, by how much money we give them. We will be able to tell that we value mothers and motherhood equally with other pursuits when motherhood brings no more risk of poverty (or straightened means) than any other valued life path. I don't think we will get there until we have mothers making decisions on all of our governing councils--in public and private life. I intend to lend my voice, my vote, and my aid to get us there.

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