Women’s Risk Of Poverty Jumps Drastically When They Enter Their 20s

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There are 46.7 million Americans currently living in poverty, according to Census Bureau data released on Wednesday, but there are huge gender differences within that population.

Men and women’s poverty rate looks nearly identical up until age 18. But just as women enter their 20s, their risk of poverty spikes dramatically and much higher than the risk for men. Women between the ages of 25 and 34 experience a poverty rate 6.9 percentage points higher than men. The gender gap in poverty doesn’t begin to even out until they get to their 40s.


CREDIT: Dylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress

Then, after some years of becoming a bit more even, women experience another gap as they age. Women between the ages of 65 and 74 have a poverty rate that’s 2.9 percentage points higher, and over the age of 75 that balloons to 7.1 points.

Two different factors are at play behind these gaps: In their 20s, women begin trying to juggle family responsibilities with work, and in their older years, they reap the pay differences that have accumulated throughout their lives.

It’s no coincidence that the gap appears just as women hit their prime reproductive years: The average age at which American women have their first child is 26. “That’s when women and men go to work and have families, and that’s when their lives really start to differ,” said Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the National Women’s Law Center. “Having children and being a woman in today’s work environment is a big risk factor for poverty.”

That culprit — having children — becomes apparent when the data is explored even further. “Once you’re looking at the presence of children and the fact that women are the vast majority of single parents, you see a much greater difference in poverty,” Entmacher said. While there’s a 6.9 percentage point gap in the poverty rate between men and women ages 25-34, that gap becomes 9.4 points when men and women with children under 18 are compared, according to her analysis. More than 20 percent of women of that age with children live in poverty; just 12.5 percent of men do.

The reason behind this is no great mystery. While other developed countries have similar rates of single motherhood, single mothers outside of the U.S. have much lower poverty rates. The difference comes down to policy. “It’s not inevitable that because you’re a single parent you have to be economically vulnerable,” said Melissa Boteach, vice president of the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, which houses ThinkProgress.

That policy regime is pretty clear. The United States is virtually the only country in the world that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave and the only developed country that doesn’t also ensure paid sick leave and other paid time off. We spend much less on child care, and that coupled with the lack of leave and no policy support for flexible schedules has hurt the share of women in the American labor force.

Other Census data shows that some policies do help. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which takes parts of the social safety net are into account, shows that refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, food stamps, housing subsidies, and other programs help lift millions out of poverty. “The things we do work, but we don’t do enough of it,” Entmacher noted.

“It’s a time of economic instability for women in their childbearing years, and we don’t have a policy regime to deal with that,” Boteach added. Couple that with the gender wage gap that follows women into all jobs, and the fact that they’re disproportionately crowded into lower-wage jobs to begin with, and a picture emerges of women who are saddled with the majority of the work to raise children without much support to do so.

The poverty gap that emerges in women’s retirement years is also tied closely to the gender wage gap. It means that they are earning less over their lifetimes, paying less into Social Security and therefore seeing lower payments when it’s time to start collecting benefits. “It’s the pay gap that accumulates over time,” Boteach said. Women also outlive men and can expect to spend more on medical expenses. That adds up to mean that women make up two-thirds of the elderly poor.