Come election time, it seems every politician loves the ladies. It makes sense — women are registered to vote in higher numbers than men and turn out to vote at higher rates. But how do candidates’ declarations of admiration and affection for mothers, wives and daughters translate into public policy? Look a little more closely, and you’ll find a reality wildly out of step with their flowery words.
Recently released U.S. Census data demonstrate once again that when we talk about poverty, we are talking about women and children. One in seven American women lived in poverty in 2014, and rates are especially high among women who head families, African American women, Latina women, women over age 65 living alone and women with disabilities. More than two-thirds of the elderly poor are women. Women represent 63 percent of minimum wage workers, 63 percent of part-time workers and 53 percent of the working poor.
The numbers in Maine are largely consistent with those nationally, with one sad and frustrating exception. In Maine, 58 percent of single mothers of children under 5 live in poverty, a rate far higher than that of the nation. Furthermore, Maine stands out among the New England states for the number of women living in poverty, working part time and earning less than $20,000 per year.
Poverty rates matter because economic security has a bearing on every other aspect of a woman’s life. Whether a woman has money and how she earns it affects her health, her ability to escape a violent relationship, her ability to chart her own life, her children’s prospects. In other words, the well-being of women is integral to the well-being of society as a whole and a state in which women and children cannot meet their most basic needs is one that has chosen the wrong priorities.
For far too long, we have been encouraged to believe that economic circumstances, like the weather, are something outside of our control. Furthermore, we’ve been told that poverty is an individual failing rather than a societal one. In reality, millions of American women struggle to support themselves and their families no matter how hard they work due to the combined effects of systematic discrimination established in law long ago and more recent changes to the workplace that allow businesses to profit while treating employees as though they are disposable.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can, together, make different public policy choices in order to build a strong middle class and a healthier society where everyone has a chance to succeed. Those choices include ensuring that:
— Everyone in Maine can meet their basic needs like food and housing.
— Each child gets off to a healthy start in life, with the nutrition and nurturing that build strong brains and create a foundation for later success.
— Adults can continue to get an education, acquiring and updating skills to meet the needs of an ever-changing economy.
— All Mainers have access to the full range of health care, not only for their well-being and dignity, but also so that that they can earn a living.
— Our workplace policies — wages, scheduling, the ability to earn paid sick time, access to paid leave to address a major life event — reflect the realities of families in the 21st century.
Building a future in which all Mainers thrive, including eliminating poverty among women and children, is no small undertaking. Yet we already know the building blocks to success. What is required is the will to make change, and the collective effort of Mainers in the political, philanthropic, business and nonprofit sectors.
There isn’t a moment to lose. Those interested in improving life for women and their families can join us for the Maine Women’s Summit on Economic Security on Friday, Oct. 16, at the Augusta Civic Center.
Eliza Townsend is the executive director of the Maine Women’s Policy Center.