(Editor’s note: This commentary is an edited version of an Op-Ed that appeared in The Detroit News on October 3, 2012.)
Modern American feminists employ an easy political catchphrase, the "feminization of poverty," to inculcate the idea of female poverty — with misogynistic origins — into our political lexicon. But let's examine the policy behind it.
The statistical buzzword employed in these arguments for female poverty is "female head of household." In 2000, single American women between the ages of 18 to 24 were 60 percent more likely to live in poverty than their male counterparts, according to economists Christina Hoff-Summers and Diana Furchtgott-Roth. Feminization of poverty is the term used to demonstrate the unequal existence of poverty for women as compared to men.
It's not a false statistic by any means, but it should be noted that "female heads of household" to indicate female poverty levels is unique to Western countries.
A University of California-Sacramento study examined how accurate this term was for indicating poverty levels around the world. The authors looked at poverty not in terms of income and the measurement of a household as a unit, but from the opportunities and decision-making available to people in a country. Their research showed that in many African and Asian countries, there is not a discrepancy between men and womens' likelihood to be poor if you look at "head of household" data alone.
These countries don't have lower levels of poverty than the United States. They don't have more feminized cultures than the United States. So why are our single women so much more likely to be poor?
That is easily traced to Western countries' wealth and subsequent creation of welfare and entitlement programs.
Until 1996, when Congress undertook welfare reform, single-female parent households received increased welfare if they were unmarried and there was no paternal involvement, creating gross economic incentives for this status. Not surprisingly, welfare caseloads reached a record high, and were comprised almost entirely of "female-run" households.
When that program was abolished, welfare caseloads began a sharp decline.
Take Detroit. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a single female head-of-household with no husband present with children represents 50 percent of poor families in the city — a city with 34.5 percent of residents below the poverty line from 2006-2011. The difference between the overwhelming gap between single female heads-of-household and single male heads-of-household (which represent less than 10 percent of the poor) is simple: the children.
The feminist argument here would be: That's exactly right. We've created a societal expectation for women to take on the burden of motherhood, and our cultural attitudes have saddled women with economic liabilities.
The reality, however, is that each child is a cash bonus for those unemployed women. That's not a judgment; it's simply how our current system operates. There is a clear trend between welfare programs providing for women who have children out of wedlock, and more unemployed women having children out of wedlock.
When the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s, 6 percent of children were born to an unmarried woman. In 2010, that number was 40.8 percent, according to data from the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector. It's not complicated: the Michigan Department of Human Services says the unemployed mother (or pregnant woman) needs assistance, so each child receives a check from the state of Michigan. She and her family get more money if there isn't a man around.
The common confusion is to say: Oh well, these are teenage girls who aren't taught about using protection, which is both patronizing and uninformed. In fact, Rector's research shows only 7.7 percent of these births were to girls younger than 18. Three in every four were to women between the ages of 19 and 29.
This is a damaged culture, and it is much more easily traced to policy decisions than to sexism or religion or any number of cultural axes to grind.
As Rector's report says, "Michigan is splitting into two separate castes. … In the bottom economic third of the population, children are raised by a single-mother with a high-school degree or less."
These sorts of policies should be condemned as sexist by any observer keen on results, but it seems modern feminists will tolerate any kind of chauvinism — so long as it is statist.
Lindsey Dodge is an assistant editor at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.