comments_image Comments

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.

Photo Credit:


This piece originally appeared on openDemocracy, and is reprinted here with their permission.

While the rest of the world debates America’s role in the Middle East or its use of drones in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the U.S. Congress is debating just how drastically it should cut food assistance to the 47 million Americans — one out of seven people — who suffer from “food insecurity,” the popular euphemism for those who go hungry. 

The U.S. Government began giving food stamps to the poor during the Great Depression. Even when I was a student in the 1960’s, I received food stamps while unemployed during the summers. That concern for the hungry, however, has evaporated. The Republicans — dominated by Tea Party policies — are transforming the United States into a far less compassionate and more mean-spirited society.

The need is great. Since the Great Recession of 2008, the food stamp program — now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), has doubled from $38 billion in 2008 to $78 billion in the last year. During 2012, 65 million Americans used SNAP for at least one a month, which means that one out of every five Americans became part of the swelling rolls of “needy families,” most of whom are women and children.

Democrats defend the new debit card program, which can only be used to purchase food, as feeding needy Americans at a time of high unemployment and great poverty. Republicans, for their part, argue that the programme is rife with fraud, that its recipients (who are mostly single mothers) are lazy and shiftless, and that we must make drastic cuts to reduce government spending. Their most Dickensian argument is that if you feed the poor, they won’t want to work.

But as the New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out, welfare entitlements, including the food debit card, are not only good for families; they also good for the economy. People who receive such help spend the money immediately. Single mother hold down multiple jobs at minimum wages to keep their family together. The debit card allows them to go shopping and to buy needed groceries. Such entitlements boost spending and the economy, rather than depleting it.

Despite these arguments, the cuts have already begun. On Nov. 1, 2013, Congresscut nearly five billion dollars from SNAP and Republicans now want to cut another $40 billion dollars. The stalemate has resulted in the failure of Congress to pass the farm bill, which provides SNAP subsidies to farms, mostly of which are large agricultural corporations.

Meanwhile, poverty grows, the stock market zooms to new heights, the wealth of the one percent increases, and corporate executives continue to get tax exemptions for business entertainment expenses, which allow corporations to deduct 50 percent of these costs from their annual taxes.

In all this discussion, the real face of poverty — single mothers — has strangely disappeared. Welfare policy in America has always favored mothers and children. In a country that values self-sufficiency and glorifies individualism, Americans have viewed men — except war veterans — as capable of caring for themselves, or part of the undeserving poor. Women, by contrast, were always viewed as mothers with dependents, people to be cared for and protected precisely because they are vulnerable and raise the next generation.

As I read dozens of think tank and government reports, and newspaper stories however, I am surprised to notice that even strong opponents of the cuts describe SNAP’s recipients as children, teenagers, seniors or the disabled. Why have single mothers disappeared from such accounts about the poor? There are plenty of “needy families,” “households,” and “poor Americans,” but the real face of poverty and the actual recipients of food assistance are single mothers, whose faces have been absorbed by the more abstract language of “poor Americans” and “needy households.”