The opening decades of the 21st century have been characterized by growing inequalities within and across nations. In 2016, just 62 people possessed more wealth than 3.6 billion people, the poorest half of the human population (Oxfam 2016). Government cutbacks in support for education, welfare, health care, and housing have heightened the gap between the rich and the poor even in the most affluent nations. The economies of more than 100 nations are worse off now than they had been in 1980. The wealthiest 20% of the world population now controls 86% of the world income, while the poorest 20% controls only 1.1% and 85% of the world population controls only 14% of the world’s income. Between 1970 and 1995, average per capita income in the poorest third of countries fell from 3.1 percent to 1.9 percent of the average per capita income of the richest third. Inequalities are restricted to income. As Valentine Moghadam (2005, 41) has pointed out, “In the 1990s one-fifth of the world population, living in highest income countries, have 86% of the gross domestic product (GDP), 82% of the world export markets, 68% of foreign direct investment, and 74% of the telephone lines; the bottom fifth, living in the poorest countries, had about 1% of each category.”
As poverty has grown globally, it has also been “feminized.” More than 70% of the poor globally are women. The “feminization of poverty” refers to more than the fact that the preponderance of the poor are women; the poor are constituted as a feminized category, as dependent, subrational, and in need of direction (Kingfisher 2002). Thus the poor are subjected to modes of regulation and control that the affluent would not tolerate. Employers require mandatory overtime while paying less-than-subsistence wages, providing no health or pension benefits, and infringing basic freedoms pertaining to domicile, mobility, reproduction, and marriage.
Strategies of national and international agencies to deal with poverty are peculiarly gendered. Too often, structural adjustment policies mandate cash cropping, which displaces subsistence agriculture and the subsistence farmers who happen to be women. Structural adjustment policies increase women’s participation in waged labor at a time when global competition is driving wages down. Thus women find themselves working more hours in paid labor, playing crucial roles in the informal economic sector, and assuming increased responsibility for family subsistence. Development strategies grounded in women’s microenterprise help expand capitalist markets and foster economic growth, but they also heighten the economic responsibilities of individual women, magnifying their burden as providers for family subsistence. They increase the debt of poor women, imposing new levels of stress as well as responsibility. Thus gender disadvantage is intensified for women who already work longer hours than men, earn less, and are restricted to lower quality employment than men.
In liberal and social democracies, wage-based social insurance, pension, and welfare schemes have contributed to women’s poverty by penalizing women who earn markedly less than men for work outside the home and who receive no compensation at all for labor in the home. Programs such as European family allowances reinforce traditional notions that the appropriate role for women is in the home, substituting the male-dominant state for husband as “provider,” thereby perpetuating women's dependence. In the United States, the latest round of “welfare reform”—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), replete with workfare and bridefare—punishes poor women for performing precisely those roles that patriarchal society accords them while eliminating entitlements to social provision. Without adequate childcare or training provisions, such programs force recipients of public assistance to perform menial labor in “public service” to “work off” their benefits. Failure to perform assigned tasks entails forfeiture of benefits, that is, potential starvation. Thus some commentators have suggested that some of the wealthiest nations in the world have not moved far beyond the British Poor Law of 1601 in their “enlightened” treatment of the poor.
Poverty is a feminist issue. This course will explore the contributions of feminist analysis, advocacy and policy-making to anti-poverty policy and social justice politics. It will consider feminist critiques of anti-poverty policies in post-industrial and industrializing nations and explore how feminists have framed the question of poverty in new ways. It will also examine how feminists have illuminated the “feminization” of poverty and drawn attention to gender bias in remediation strategies that would otherwise remain invisible. Moreover, it will explore how feminist activism has attempted to bring new urgency to debates about social justice at a time when political parties and elected officials in many parts of the world have substituted privatization for poverty alleviation.