1 in 3 U.S. Women Hover Between Poverty and the Middle Class

(April 2014) One-third of American women are on the verge of poverty: Almost 42 million adult women in 2012 lived in households with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold, according to The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink.1

The latest Shriver Report uses 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($23,050), or approximately $47,000 a year for a family of four, as the minimum needed for a basic middle-class living standard. The report looks at the status of U.S. women 50 years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty and 50 years since the passage of the first Equal Pay Act. While some women have made significant progress in education and labor force participation, social immobility and income inequality are keeping many behind their male counterparts.

Pay Gap Has Stalled

While women are now two-thirds of the primary or co-breadwinners in U.S. families, their jobs often don’t pay enough to secure their place in the middle class. In order to escape poverty, a family of four—two parents and two children—would need at least $23,283, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A woman who worked full time all year (with two unpaid weeks off) would have to earn at least $10.57 an hour ($3.32 above the current minimum wage) in order to rise above that threshold.

Between 1967 and 2001, women’s average earnings rose, but over the past decade, the female-to-male earnings ratio—77 cents for every dollar—stagnated, according to the report. Moreover, female workers in poorly paid jobs have not seen the wage gains that women in better-paid jobs have seen. During the recession (2007 to 2011), this pay gap between women in the lowest wage group and those in the top wage group widened: Those at the bottom saw their wages drop by nearly 3 percent while those at the top saw their wages rise by 3.4 percent.

‘Pink-Collar’ Jobs Are the New Wave

Although women have made gains in employment, the Shriver Report noted that the gender pay gap and the wage pay gap among women are particularly concerning because many women are more likely to work in underpaid, female-dominated jobs—so-called “pink-collar” service and caregiving occupations—that don’t secure a spot in the middle class. Although this job sector is among the fastest growing in the United States, says the report, wage increases and benefits haven’t caught up.

A complication to the gender wage gap is when men enter traditionally female-dominated jobs and are able to ascend a “glass escalator”—compared to women’s hitting the “glass ceiling” of traditionally “male” jobs. In one study, male nurses, especially those who were white, more easily moved into supervisory positions because of preferential treatment over their female colleagues, the report cited.

Other results from the report:

  • Education matters more than ever for getting women off the brink, as researchers Anthony P. Carnevale and Nicole Smith noted in one chapter. Women on the edge are more likely to have only a high school diploma or some college education. In 2012, the annual earnings of a person with a high school diploma were $33,904, far below the $47,000 annual income needed to escape poverty. And by 2020, almost two-thirds of all U.S. jobs will require postsecondary education and training beyond a high school degree.
  • African American and Hispanic women are more likely to be on the edge of poverty: They experience a larger pay gap. When married to men of color, their spouses earn less than white men. And they are more likely to be the head of a single-parent family, said economist Heather Boushey and her colleagues.
  • Because of caregiving responsibilities, women face conflicts between work and family, often having to cycle in and out of the labor force, and potentially in and out of poverty, affecting their job stability and prospects for raises and promotions. One reason the United States fell from having the sixth-highest female labor force participation rate in 1990 to the 17th-highest in 2010 was a lack of support measures to benefit children and families.

The Shriver Report explores the reality of women’s dual roles as the majority of the nation’s caregivers and breadwinners. It calls for the nation to adopt a set of public policies to boost women’s earning potential: higher minimum wage, improved access to work and income support, and better opportunities to access medium- and high-paying jobs. The report also stresses that women should recognize their own importance as providers for their families and key drivers of the nation’s economic and social growth.

Tyjen T. Conley is editor/social media manager at the Population Reference Bureau.


  1. Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink, ed. Olivia Morgan and Karen Skelton (New York: RosettaBooks, 2014).