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Women Are Swelling the Ranks of People Living in Extreme Poverty in America

Poor women are often ignored or regarded with contempt in the U.S.

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Even the strongest opponents of these cuts don’t focus on women or mothers. Instead they publicize pinched-faced children — a better poster image — staring hungrily at food they cannot eat. Or, they discuss the public health impact these cuts may have on children. According to most reports, even from the Agriculture Department, “children and teenagers” make up almost half of the recipients of food assistance. But they don’t mention the mothers who receive this assistance in order to feed those children and teenagers. From the stories about food stamps, you’d think that only children, teenagers, the elderly and the disabled have gone hungry. 

The words “women” or even “mothers” rarely appear. In a powerful column against the cuts, the liberal and compassionate New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, for example, argued that “two-thirds of recipients are children, elderly or disabled” and warned his readers about the long-range impact of malnourished children. He, too, never mentioned women, who are the main adult recipients of the SNAP program and who feed those children, elderly or disabled. Nor did he point out that those who apply for such assistance are the mothers and women who seek to nourish these children. It’s as though women are simply vehicles — not persons — in the reproduction process of the human race. 

Yet the reality tells a different story. In 2010, for example, 42 percent of single mothers relied on SNAP; and in rural areas, the rate often rose as high as one half of all single mothers. What’s missing from this picture — on both sides — is the real faces of hunger, which is not “needy” families, or “poor Americans", but single mothers with “food insecurity” for themselves and their families. According to the Center for Budget Priorities, women are twice as likely to use food stamps as anyone else in the population. They are the ones who apply for the SNAP debit card, go shopping, takes buses for hours to find discounted food supplies, and try to stretch their food to last throughout the month for their children, teenagers and, less often, husbands. They are the pregnant women with older children whose infants are born malnourished, and the “Americans” who, at the end of the month, make hasty runs to relatives, food banks and even join other dumpster divers.

When journalists do focus on the women who are recipients of food assistance, they discover a nightmare hiding in plain sight. These women are either unemployed, under-employed or service workers who don’t earn enough to feed themselves and their families. By the end of the month, they and their children frequently often skip meals or eat one meal a day until the next month’s SNAP assistant arrives

So why have women disappeared from a fierce national debate over who deserves food assistance? I’m not actually sure. Perhaps it is because so many adult women, like men, now work in the labour force and are viewed as individuals who should take care of themselves. Perhaps it is because Republicans find women’s appetite, as opposed to that of children, an embarrassment, hinting of sexual desire. Perhaps it is because this is part of the Republican war on women’s reproductive freedom: a single mother with children is somehow guilty of bringing on her own poverty.

Whatever the reason, the rhetoric does not match the reality. Once in while, the media publishes or broadcasts a “human interest” story that gives poor women a face” “It is late October,” one reporter begins, “so Adrianne Flowers is out of money to buy food for her family. Feeding five kids is expensive, and the roughly $600 in food stamps she gets from the federal government never lasts the whole month. "I'm barely making it," said the 31-year-old Washington, D.C., resident and single mother.” End of story. On to weather and the sports.