For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.
Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:
-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.
-Forty 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.
When we Americans want to do something about poverty, we usually set about “improving” poor people. We may offer education or job training, establish programs to develop the parenting skills of young mothers, require addiction treatment as a condition for receiving housing, put a time limit on welfare benefits in order to motivate poor people to work, or refuse additional welfare payments to discourage future childbearing.
This practice of improving poor people has a long history. Early American reformers traced extreme poverty to intoxication, laziness, and other kinds of unacceptable behavior. They tried to use public policy and philanthropy to elevate poor people’s characters and change their behavior. As the years passed, different sets of behaviors were blamed for poverty and successive methods suggested to improve the poor. Later reformers looked to evangelical religion, temperance legislation, punitive poor houses, the forced breakup of families, and threats of institutionalization - all to improve poor people.
This approach has rested on the individual belief that the individual faults of the poor are the primary causes of poverty: ignorance, lack of training, addiction, laziness, defective character, sexual promiscuity, too many children; the list goes on and on. It is not surprising, of course, that a nation so strongly committed to individualism should so often search for the roots of poverty within the poor persons themselves.