“She is one missed paycheck, one sick child, one broken down car away from losing it all.” – Maria Shriver
We are 42 million strong. The number of women living on the brink – on the edge of a financial meltdown. I am one of them. I am the face of poverty. I always have been, and at this rate, I may always be.
I am not ashamed to admit it, because it has shaped who I am. I hesitate to say being raised by a single mother and understanding what it means – what it feels like – to live paycheck to paycheck, even into adulthood as a single, child-free woman with a college degree, clouded my world view in a negative way. I like to think it has impacted who I am in a good way, giving me the capacity to be empathetic, to relate to the plight of the poor and struggling single mothers, and the ability to see that there are many factors that lead to, and perpetuate, the cycle of poverty.
It is what has made me a good journalist and a relatable, compassionate human being. It’s why I consider myself a social activist and social change agent, a passionate advocate for social justice and women’s equality issues.
Maybe it’s also why this video makes me cry every time I watch it: Click here
The 400-page report takes an honest look at the millions of women who are doing it all – trying to go to school, hold down a job and put food on the table – and barely scraping by, struggling to provide and parent in a political climate that shames them, an economy that discriminates as far as equal pay and family-friendly workplace policies, and a competitive culture that continues to pit women against each other.
As the report highlights, one in three people in the U.S. endures the stress, struggle, and anxiety of financial insecurity every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of them are women and children. The brink refers to the economic line separating the middle class from the working poor and those people living in absolute poverty.
For the millions of American women who live this way, I would have to agree with Shriver: the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” And it’s a scary place to be. I can attest it takes a special kind of resiliency, determination and grit to want to keep going – and I don’t even have a child to worry about.
Yes, even with a master’s degree, even graduating third in my high school class, even earning scholarships for academic accomplishments for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees, I am today’s face of poverty. Perhaps, because of many of my early childhood experiences, I chose a different route than most of the women I know – the route of earning an education, pursuing a career, taking pride in supporting myself, and being very pragmatic about the pros and cons of marriage and childrearing.
I’ve never bought into marriage, much less having a baby, as an easy out for solving my economic troubles. Quite the contrary. I’m not ashamed to say it: The thought of being trapped in a bad marriage, or constantly stressed out and tied down with a child whom I cannot support, petrifies me. People seem to forget that children don’t feed and clothe themselves. Not to mention, they are a lifetime commitment.
In a baby-crazed culture that makes you feel like something is wrong if you don’t feel the mother bug, I’ve stood strong in my convictions and made the conscious choice to delay having children, with growing certainty that I will likely remain child free. Still, that doesn’t mean I have contempt for the women who long to be married and have kids, or love the role of homemaker and mother, or that I cannot relate to the women Shriver highlights in “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.”
We all get to choose our path in life. And our life experiences shape the path we take.
I wrote about being raised by a single mother in scholarship applications and my application to graduate school. Yes, my dad was in the picture, but he always fought her on paying his fair share of child support, and we lived on the brink. We didn’t have designer clothes, we drove a junky car and our house was pretty average. Yes, my mom owned it, but she also owned rentals, and those seemed to cut into our standard of living due to something always needing repaired or someone not paying rent. But those people were living on the brink, too, so my mom tried to work with them.
All in all, I am grateful we didn’t move around a lot and attended the same school and always had a place to call home. We had a good meal every night. And our utilities didn’t regularly get shut off, but it was a childhood fraught with financial uncertainty and even secret embarrassment when it came to measuring up materialistically at school and among friends. I never had braces, a class ring, senior pictures or other things that are common for most kids who grew up with married parents and two incomes.
I give my mom a lot of credit for working hard to raise two daughters, not taking government assistance for food or school lunches. She even had a decent job as a housing inspector for people who received subsidized housing, but she never made more than $10 an hour back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When I cleaned the house, I would come across unopened utility bills. I always thought it was odd, but I guess it was her way of not dealing with the reality there wasn’t money to pay them. And I believe it is why I have always been hypervigilant about paying mine as an adult.
I’m not writing this to embarrass either of my parents. They did the best they could. These are the reasons poverty and women’s equality issues are deeply personal to me.
Watching my mom struggle to make ends meet pushed me to pursue higher education. I always thought if you worked hard, earned good grades and had the self-determination to see a goal through to completion that you would be rewarded. I believed that degree would be my golden ticket to the good life – with or without a husband. And while my bachelor’s degree did open the doors to a rewarding and successful career as a newspaper reporter for more than a decade, it never opened the doors to the economic opportunity to both own a house and have a car payment at the same time as a single woman.
Now, as a 37-year-old woman with an advanced degree who cannot find a job and currently lives in “poverty,” this issue hits even closer to home. I have had to make some very personal and very tough decisions in the last two years due to my financial situation. I am confident I would be back living with one of my parents without the support of my boyfriend. It’s been humbling, depressing and eye opening to say the least. I tried to do everything right in hopes of being a contributing member of society. In the last few weeks, I’ve even found myself trying to pacify a female business owner who wanted to haggle over $10 an hour and give me unnecessary grief.
Beyond that, I am tired of this Conservative/Republican political agenda that tries to convince people that welfare moms are lazy, people who don’t want to work and just want to suck off the system. The truth is, most working moms make minimum wage or work other low-wage service sector jobs in health care, retail or food service. They will qualify for food stamps, Medicaid and government housing assistance. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math. Even at $10 an hour working a full-time job, that translates into an average $300 paycheck after taxes and not counting premiums for health insurance or child-care costs.
Sure, there will always be free riders in society. There will always be people who cannot work due to physical and mental disabilities, but it is simply a myth and a lie that most welfare moms – or most people living in poverty – do not want to work. Just read The Shriver Report.
Here are some other statistics from the report:
• 1 and 3 women are financially living on the brink. Many of these women feel they are just a single incident – one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck – away from a serious financial crisis.
• Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
• More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
• 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
• The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.
• Women with only a high school diploma are three to four times more likely to live on the financial brink than those with a college degree.
• America is the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee mothers paid leave to care for a new child, and one of only a few countries that doesn’t guarantee workers a right to earn paid sick days.
• This is the first post-recession recovery since 1970 in which women have continued to lose jobs while men have gained more than 1.1 million jobs.
Stop passing judgment, speaking with an air of superiority, and spouting off half truths. Start educating yourself. Learn a little empathy. This is your mother, your sister, your neighbor, your employee, your colleague, your friend. This issue of women and children living in poverty and living on the brink is everyone’s problem. And based on the current economy, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.
And ladies, it’s time to stand up, push back, own our power, and, above all, support each other.