Poor Women in Rich Countries: The Feminization of Poverty over the Life Course

April 22, 2010

Women's engagement with the labour market and the welfare state has been the subject of increased attention in recent years, as more women enter the labour market, rates of lone parenthood change and women live longer in many developed countries. Drawing on data from eight developed nations, Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and her fellow contributors embark on an impressive and in-depth examination of women's poverty in eight wealthy yet wholly diverse countries.

Focusing specifically on the experience of lone mothers and elderly lone women, this comprehensive collection analyses the labour market and social welfare experiences of women throughout the life course. Each chapter provides a political backdrop in which the country's welfare ideals are situated, allowing for consideration of varying influences upon social policies and their impact on women's poverty.

Poor Women in Rich Countries begins its tour with Sweden, a nation that Schaffner Goldberg describes as social democratic, and where poverty rates are fairly low. Yet Swedish welfare-state policies in the first decade of the 21st century have not been as effective as they were in the 1990s at reducing inequality for solo mothers, elderly women and immigrants; all saw their poverty rates increasing in the 2000s. Moreover, the findings from Sweden suggest that an "ethnicisation" of poverty is increasingly in evidence in developed countries, and this is borne out in succeeding chapters.

Germany, France, Italy and Japan are described as conservative regimes. In Germany, lone mothers suffer a particularly high risk of being or becoming poor, and there is also a high risk of elderly women becoming poor as a result of inequitable pensions systems. In France, the feminisation of poverty is a latent problem rather than an explicit one, with young people and young immigrants viewed as being more blighted by poverty than either lone mothers or elderly women. The Italian case highlights the influence of the family on welfare-state responses and the subsequent effect on poverty rates for lone mothers and lone elderly women, especially in southern Italy, where regional disparities are starkly apparent and poverty is further concentrated. Japan is a clear example of a developed country in which women have become intertwined in the working poor. Here, the poverty rates for lone mothers are very high, much higher than for lone elderly women.

Finally, Canada, the US and the UK are typified here as liberal regimes. Again, the marked growth of "precarious work" and the lack of progress in the introduction of a living wage are highlighted as major barriers to women's routes out of poverty. Yet such initiatives alone will not suffice; increased childcare provision and financial assistance are required for lone mothers to avoid poverty, while for elderly lone women, governments must play a key role in providing financial assistance alongside more services for the elderly.

The overarching findings of the collection indicate that a feminisation of poverty in all of the rich countries analysed is strongly influenced by the prevalence of precarious work, with low wages and insecure employment particularly affecting women's poverty rates. Of course this is not a new phenomenon; much has been discussed in terms of the supply side and demand side of the labour market, not least in the UK in recent decades.

Schaffner Goldberg explains that as the research for this volume was undertaken prior to the global recession, much of the analysis sets out predictions on what would happen if the economic meltdown had not occurred. Despite this, efforts are made to estimate the impact of the recession, and various authors include a short concluding section on that point. The editor and contributors warn readers that with the economic crisis continuing, women in poverty may well be pushed further to the back of the queue as the economic recovery of each country as a whole is held to be paramount.

Poor Women in Rich Countries: The Feminization of Poverty over the Life Course

Edited by Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg. Oxford University Press, 352pp, £.50. ISBN 9780195314304. Published 26 November 2009

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