Spotlight Exclusives

Understanding How Policy Changes Affect Women in Poverty, by Phyllis Caldwell

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The vast majority of people in poverty in this country are women and children. Yet far too often policy makers and even anti-poverty advocates overlook the day-to-day realities that make it especially challenging for women living in poverty to follow a traditional path to economic security.

Consider the young single mom who is desperately trying to pull herself out of a cycle of minimum wage jobs, inadequate housing and health care, and limited prospects for a better future. A well-meaning advocate suggests she enroll in a job-training program that meets several evenings a week. The young woman enrolls, only to discover that there is no child care available and that the classes are being held in a high-crime neighborhood with limited access to public transportation. After struggling to make it to the first few classes, the woman drops out.

This is the reality organizations we work with face every day as they try to help poor women make more of their lives. To confront these barriers, our organization, along with three other women۪s foundations the Women۪s Foundation of California, the Chicago Foundation for Women and the Women۪s Foundation for Greater Memphis have launched the Women۪s Economic Security Collaborative, a new initiative that aims to alleviate poverty among women. It is supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and The Ford Foundation. Our first task will be to develop a “Poverty Impact Statement,” which will provide policy makers with a set of guidelines for making sure that new laws do not adversely affect those in poverty especially women and children.

There is no question that poverty is taking an especially harsh toll on this group. According to data compiled by the Center for American Progress, 14.1 percent of women in this country live in poverty, compared with 11.1 percent of men, a situation that can be attributed in part to women۪s lower salaries. The problem is especially dire for children. Nearly one-fifth (17.6 percent) live in poverty and 42.7 percent of poor children live with a single mother. By contrast, 20.1 percent of children in poverty live with a single dad.

We believe that developing a Poverty Impact Statement would go a long way toward putting a halt to these disturbing trends by forcing legislators to consider how proposed policy changes will affect those most in need. Judy Patrick, executive vice-president at The Women۪s Foundation of California, likes to point to what happened, for instance, when California۪s Vehicle License Fee (VLF) was cut in half a few years ago, resulting in some $7 billion in lost revenues annually and a massive increase in the state۪s budget deficit. Today, proposed cuts by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in vital programs for children and families can be linked directly to that first move to cut the VLF. To manage the state۪s ballooning budget deficit of more than $17 billion, the governor has proposed ending cash aid to nearly 200,000 children, most of whom live in households headed by women; cutting nearly $200 million from the state۪s subsidized child care and child development programs; and slashing $1.1 billion from the state۪s Medicaid program.

The Poverty Impact Statement would allow those advocating for economic justice and women۪s human rights to implement a coordinated strategy of policy change and public education. The Poverty Impact Statement, much like an Environmental Impact Statement, would provide a clear and consistent tool for measuring the effects on poverty of proposed policy. Among the possible measures: Would the policy result in more people or fewer people falling into poverty? Would it advance or hurt programs aimed at fighting poverty?

During the next year, we will pull together our resources to come up with a Poverty Impact Statement that we hope will reframe the national debate on poverty and create a policy environment that helps women and their families achieve economic self-sufficiency and financial well-being. We will invite other women۪s foundations to join the effort by implementing the Poverty Impact Statement in their communities. And, we will launch a public education and media awareness campaign to build the political will among policy makers to apply the Poverty Impact Statement to their legislative and administrative decisions.

With this simple but powerful tool, those of us committed to fighting poverty in this country will be able to speak with one voice. A systemic reduction of poverty in America will require no less.

Phyllis Caldwell is president of Washington Area Women۪s Foundation.

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