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The Feminization of Poverty: Only in America?

Women in poverty

The Feminization of Poverty: Only in

America? Edited by Gertrude

Schaffner Goldberg and Eleanor

Kremen. New York, Praeger

Publishers, 1990. 231 pp.

bibliography. Despite unprecedented gains for American women in terms of educational attainment, labor force participation, and opportunities for better paid jobs over the past 30 years, many, especially single parents, do not earn enough to escape poverty. Poverty rates are lower today than in 1960, but the declines have not been as great for women who head households as for other groups. Furthermore, growth in the number of families headed by women has greatly outpaced increases for other family types. Consequently, families headed by women have grown from less than one-quarter to more than one-half of all poor families. This timely comparative study, edited by Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and Eleanor Kremen, argues convincingly that the feminization of poverty, although discovered in America, is not unique to the United States. Without sustained efforts aimed at both the labor market and the social welfare system, the feminization of poverty could occur in most other industrial nations.

Goldberg and Kremen both are professors at the Adelphi University School of Social work. They have brought together essays on seven industrialized countries, each written by an invited scholar who has either visited or lived in the country she describes. Goldberg and Kremen contribute introductory and concluding chapters which, respectively, set the parameters for comparison and analyze the cross-national findings.

The selection of countries for study is excellent. Kremen and Goldberg present us with not only a Western European-North American contrast, but also chapters on the situation of women in Japan, Poland, and the Soviet Union.

The inclusion of the U.S.S.R. and Poland allows examination of the condition of women in countries long committed to Marxist doctrine on the equality of the sexes in the workplace. These chapters also provide useful benchmarks for future developments as both countries move toward market economies. Japan's inclusion allows for study of a rapidly industrialized country which retains very traditional aspects of the role of women. For Western Europe, Sweden and France are good choices because both are advanced welfare states with innovative family support systems.

Each chapter follows a similar four-factor framework: (1) labor market factors such as women's participation in the labor force, part-time employment, unemployment, wages, and sex segregation in jobs; (2) labor market policies which have an impact on women, such as equal pay legislation and affirmative action; (3) social welfare benefits and government transfers which can deter the feminization of poverty; and (4) demographic factors such as divorce and remarriage rates, unmarried motherhood, and teenage pregnancy which contribute to the relative prevalence of single parenthood. Some prior studies have addressed one or two of these factors, but no other study has considered all four simultaneously and cross-nationally.

Looking at these four factors, Goldberg and Kremen find that the feminization of poverty, although not uniquely American, is most pronounced in the United States. Their book shows that the problem derives from the interaction of all four factors. Demographically, our high divorce rate (the highest in the world) and births out of wedlock (second to Scandinavia) have created a large number of single-parent families. In particular, teenage pregnancies out of wedlock are comparatively high in the United States, instantly creating many poor families upon childbirth. Therefore, the potential for women's poverty is greater in the United States. According to Goldberg and Kremen, these demographic factors combine with insufficient efforts to reduce poverty through labor market and social welfare policies so that the potential for poverty is often realized.

Canada, France, and Sweden have experienced many of the same demographic trends, yet women in these countries benefit more from labor market and social welfare policies than do American women. In Canada and Sweden, the drive for pay equality with men has progressed further than in the United States. France and Sweden, in particular, have eased the "double burden" of women by providing widespread and affordable child care facilities and parental leave systems. The United States is unique among the seven countries in not having a national health insurance system. We are also the only country studied without national paid maternity leave and one of the few industrialized countries in the world which does not pay a family allowance.

The feminization of poverty is practically invisible in Japan and Sweden. In her chapter, "Sweden: Promise and Paradox," Marguerite G. Rosenthal argues that the potential for its occurrence exists in Sweden, but the feminization of poverty has been mitigated by the strong system of social benefits and transfers which give priority to single parents. The potential is also there in Japan, especially because of the "marginalization" of women in the labor market. June Axinn, in "Japan: A Special Case," shows that Japanese women work predominantly in partime and temporary jobs which offer no job security, low wages, and few fringe benefits, compared with men in the "lifetime employment" system.

One of the most striking differences between Japan and other developed countries is the apparent stability of the Japanese family as evidenced by the low divorce rate and small number of births out of wedlock. The culture supports and enforces traditional family values. The economics of divorce in Japan make it probable that a divorced woman will sink into poverty. Only a small proportion of mothers retain a share of mutual property at divorce, and child support is low or nonexistent. Japan does not have a highly developed system of social welfare supports. Axinn points out that unhappy married couples resort to what is known as kateinai rikon, or "home divorce," a physical separation within the boundaries of the same home. No legal divorce occurs, but couples agree to lead separate lives. Present-day Japan has some similarities to America of the 1950's, with its glorification of the homemaker role and low level of divorce. The U.S. rate of single parenthood in 1960 was not much greater than that of Japan in the 1980's. Axinn raises the possibility that Japanese women will follow in the footsteps of their American counterparts as they become more dissatisfied with their secondary status in the labor market.

Lenin promised equality of the sexes in the labor force, and the Soviets see themselves as having already achieved many of the objectives of Western feminism. However, there is a sharp discrepancy between Soviet ideals and the reality of women's lives, according to Eleanor Kremen in her chapter, "Socialism: An Escape from Poverty? Women in European Russia." Kremen focuses on the European republics because they are more highly industrialized and urban and more appropriate for comparisons with the other countries in this study.

Russian women have one of the highest labor force participation rates in the world. Almost all able-bodied women work, and virtually all work full time, year round. Soviet women have penetrated into a range of managerial, technical, and scientific positions to a much higher degree than women in the West. More than 80 percent of Soviet economists and planners are women. Women also account for more than three-quarters of all dentist and physicians and about two-fifths of all engineers and scientific research personnel. Although these proportions are impressive, the reality behind them is that women do not hold top management positions even in industries where they predominate, and they rarely advance as fast as men in their professions. For example, only 1 in 12 chief engineers is a woman. Thus, the "glass ceiling" is not solely an American phenomenon. The Socialist experience of both Russia and Poland indicates that, despite measures to reduce the burden of women's dual role, women are overworked and at a disadvantage in the workplace. As one Polish professor notes: "Men have to much power, and women too much work."

Editors Goldberg and Kremen conclude their book by proposing policies to prevent the emergence or increase of poverty among women in industrialized nations. They are realistic in considering the political feasibility of achieving such policies and programs in the United States where the values of self reliance and individualism run deep. They believe that changes toward more equity for women will occur only if women mobilize themselves and join with potential allies in the union, civil rights, and elderly rights movements who are already advocating workplace, social welfare, and equalization policies. They could make an even stronger case by emphasizing that women in poverty also means children in poverty. The quality of our future work force, and hence our international competitiveness, may be adversely affected by our children's poverty. Therefore, the feminization of poverty clearly becomes a problem for all of society, not solely women.
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Author:Sorrentino, Constance
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1991
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