Measuring Poverty (5): The Mystery of the Feminization of Poverty

Some have called it a baseless claim: 70% of the world’s poor are women. This is a number that seems to have come from nowhere yet it has taken on a life of its own. The reason is probably that it has some intuitive appeal. Theoretically, the claim that being female places someone at a greater risk of being poor is convincing. Gender discrimination – which is a deceptively neutral term meaning discrimination of one gender only – is a widespread problem and it’s highly probable that women who suffer discrimination are more likely to be poor and to remain poor. They

  • receive less education
  • receive lower wages
  • cannot freely choose their jobs in some countries
  • have less inheritance rights than men in some countries
  • perform the bulk of the household tasks making it relatively hard to accumulate income
  • are responsible for the household income (men are often culturally allowed to escape into leisure and get away from the burdens of poverty)
  • suffer disproportionately from some types of violence
  • and face very specific health risks related to procreation.

All these problems faced by women who suffer discrimination make it more likely that they are relatively more burdened by poverty, compared to men who usually don’t suffer these types of discrimination.

Moreover, when young women begin to enjoy better education and employment we often see that the discriminatory features of the family structures and patriarchal systems in which they live make fresh appeals to their newly found human capital. As a result, their improved capabilities only serve to push them more into poverty. Poverty, after all, isn’t merely a question of sufficient income and capabilities, but is also determined by the availability of choice, opportunities and leisure.

So it’s obvious that men and women are poor for different reasons, and that some of the reasons that make women poor make them relatively more poor compared to men.

This is the intuitive case, but it appears that it’s very difficult to back this up with hard numbers. The “70%” claim is unlikely to be correct, but if we agree that discrimination skews the distribution, then how much? And how much of it is compensated by factors that skew the distribution towards male poverty (e.g. male participation in wars). The problem is that poverty data are usually available only for households in aggregate and aren’t broken down by individuals, sex, age etc. So it’s currently impossible to say: “this household is poor, and the female parent/child is more poor than the male parent/child”. In addition, even in households that aren’t poor according to standard measures, the women inside these households may well be poor. Women is non-poor households may be unable to access the household’s income or wealth because of discrimination.

Given the problems of the current poverty measurement system, I think it’s utopian to expect improvements in the system that will allow us to adequately measure female poverty and test the hypothesis of the feminization of poverty.

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3 thoughts on “Measuring Poverty (5): The Mystery of the Feminization of Poverty

  1. Other issues aside, women will tend to be poorer than men because the single parent family (have childcare responsibilities and only one earner/caregiver) will tend to be poorer than other units and single parents will tend to be disproportionately female. But the focus on the proportion women make up of the poor is a mistaken one. Society’s concern should be with the (a) proportion of women who are poor, not the (b) proportion women make up of the poor. And (a) tends to be inversely related to (b). That is, disadvantaged groups tend to make up a larger proportion of the very poor than of the somewhat poor – as illustrated for example, in Table 1 of my “Can We Actually Measure Health Disparities?,” Chance 19(2) (Spring 2006) :47-51
    (http://www.jpscanlan.com/images/Can_We_Actually_Measure_Health_Disparities.pdf). Thus, as poverty declines, including the poverty of disadvantaged groups, those groups tend to make a larger proportion of the poor than they previously did.
    See my “The ‘feminization of poverty’ is misunderstood,” The Plain Dealer Nov 11, 1987 (reprinted in Current 1988;302 (May):16-18 and Annual Editions: Social Problems 1988/89. Dushkin1988: http://www.jpscanlan.com/images/Poverty_and_Women.pdf; “The perils of provocative statistics,” The Public Interest 1991;102:3 14 (http://jpscanlan.com/images/The_Perils_of_Provocative_Stat.pdf); “Comment on ‘McLanahan, Sorensen, and Watson’s ‘Sex Differences in Poverty, 1950 1980,’” Signs 1991;16(2):409-13 (http://www.jpscanlan.com/images/Signs_Comment.pdf); “Race and mortality,” Society 2000;37(2):19-35 (reprinted in Current 2000 (Feb)). See also the Feminization of Poverty sub-page of the Scanlan’s Rule page of jpscanlan.com (http://www.jpscanlan.com/scanlansrule/feminizationofpoverty.html)

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