Gender lens on poverty

Publication year


Publication Author

Rosa Cho, Gail Cooper

The scope of issues confronting women living in poverty is broad and complex. Women remain the demographic with the highest percentage of poverty after children: 14.5 percent of women and 22 percent of children are poor. Studies suggest poverty among women could be worsening; in 2012, the percentage of elderly women in extreme poverty increased by 18 percent. Moreover, women at all income levels are typically caregivers to the generations before and after them, exacerbating the burdens of their poverty.

The lives of women in poverty are precarious. Women in poverty are more vulnerable to violence, unfair labor and housing practices, discriminatory pricing, and danger at work and at home. Increasingly, women’s ability to move out of poverty is compromised by limited access to a livable wage, affordable housing, healthcare, child care, paid sick leave, education, and training. Whether unemployed, partially employed, or working full-time, women in poverty contend with invasive institutions, from social service agencies to child welfare agencies to the criminal justice system. The choices of women in poverty often present equally disadvantageous options: caring for a sick child can cost a job; buying food can prevent a utility bill from being paid; avoiding a shelter can mean overcrowding a relative’s home. Women in poverty also experience more negative health consequences, including hunger, chronic disease, untreated health conditions, and mental health issues.

This primer is a composite snapshot of extreme to near poverty in the U.S. today and the special challenges it poses for women. Compiling the research of leading scholars and policy thinkers, the primer highlights the realities and (non-) choices available to women living in poverty. Asking questions about poverty necessarily raises questions about inequality—of income, access, and power, so we also look at macro-level policy contributing to greater economic insecurity and inequality. In addition, the primer compares U.S. poverty to that of its peer nations, and offers recommendations on what policies can alleviate (if not eradicate) poverty.