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Causes of Poverty and Homelessness in the Female Population



Homelessness has an immense physical, mental, and emotional effect on those who experience it. The concept of feminization of poverty describes the trend of increasing inequality in living standards between men and women, including housing, food accessibility, and job opportunity. Available research examining possible causes for the feminization of poverty, primarily focuses on changes in family structure, the economy and labor force participation rates, and the impact of the welfare state.


In assessing changes in family structure, one factor thought to be shaping the feminization of poverty trend is the decline of the “traditional” two-parent household. From 1970 through 2019, the percentage of children who lived in a two-parent household decreased from 85% to 70%, while the percentage of children who lived with an unmarried parent rose from 1% to 15%.


Households led by single mothers are more likely to fall under the poverty line and these families could possibly experience homeless. The gender wage gap, which causes women to likely be paid less for the same work, exacerbates the probability of single mother led households falling below the poverty line. Female employment is affected not only by gender in the workspace, but also the presence of children in the household. Parenthood tends to lead to lower earnings for women, because they are more likely to reduce work hours or leave the labor force entirely to provide care for their children. This contributes to income inequality as well as the gender poverty gap, and the fluctuations in household income can place these households at risk of falling below the poverty line and experiencing homelessness.


Domestic violence and lack of affordable housing, among other issues, also contribute to female poverty and homelessness, with domestic abuse as the leading cause of homelessness against women. Half of all homeless women and children reported experiencing physical violence, and 92% of homeless mothers reported experiencing physical or sexual assault. In 2018, 28% of cities cited domestic violence as a leading cause of homelessness among families with children. This is largely because survivors have limited resources while or after fleeing their abusive relationships, or property evictions related to the abuse itself. For example, even after escaping abusive relationships, domestic abuse survivors are discriminated against in their search of new housing, with 65% of Washington, DC housing providers tested in 2008 showed signs of illegally denying housing to a domestic violence survivor through actions such as refusing to rent, refusing appointments, or offering inferior terms and conditions compared with other prospective tenants.


With affordable housing defined as housing that costs no more than 30% of the household annual income, it seems the U.S. has a significant shortage of available affordable housing. In 2012, demand for affordable housing exceeded supply by an estimated 4.6 million homes. In 2011, nearly 8.5 million families used more than half of their income to pay for rent. This lack of affordable housing puts a strain on households, potentially forcing families to choose between shelter and other necessities like adequate food and clothing.


This increase in women living below the poverty line is concerning. A study by Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than one-third of women living in poverty in 2013 lacked health insurance coverage, and only 26% of families with children in poverty received TANF benefits. While cracking down on these causes may be challenging, by volunteering your time and making financial donations to the organizations working to eliminate gender inequities, we can help support women experiencing poverty and homelessness.



Gabrielle Miller is a member of the North Carolina Community Action Association Fellows Program. NCCAA Fellows are students or recent graduates pursuing a career in communications, graphic design, IT, public policy, or a related field. They receive a stipend for their participation in the program. For more information on the NCCAA Communications Fellows Program, please contact Yvette Ruffin, director of the NCCAA Fellows Program at Yvette.ruffin@nccaa.net.

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