This year, reading the news is again an act of endurance. Every day, we’re inundated with the details of persistent and unrelenting attacks against the most vulnerable families in our nation—the overwhelming number of which are those headed by women.
According to the U.S. Census, 34 percent percent of female-headed families with children were poor in 2017, compared to 16 percent of male-headed households and 6 percent of married-couple families. That year, more than half—58 percent—of all poor children lived in families headed by unmarried mothers.
This is no coincidence. “Because of employment discrimination, caregiving responsibilities and other factors, women are over-represented in low-wage jobs and are at greater risk of poverty than men throughout their lives,” the National Women’s Law Center explains, “which means that families depending on women’s earnings are at risk, too.”
The Feminization of Poverty is as real and persistent now as it was when the term was first coined in the 1970s—and recognizing and responding to it, unfortunately, remains just as difficult now as it was when I co-founded the California Women’s Law Center in 1989.
Need proof? Look no further than the most recent galling attacks from the Trump administration on these families who are simply trying to put food on the table.
First, they tried to put a clock on federal food assistance for people struggling to find work—claiming that when time runs out, an empty stomach will be positive motivation for finding a job.
Then, they told us that poor people aren’t really poor, and proposed a lower federal poverty line to yank away the benefits that keep them afloat—which would send the many low-income working families who were just barely making ends meet crashing over the edge. They also looked to immigrants—and, by default, their citizen family members—threatening their immigration status on the basis of need. Even citizens have been opting out of programs, accepting hunger in the face of fear for themselves or their family members.
And now, they’re looking to devastate a program that makes it easier to get food assistance when you already qualify for other areas of support—a move that is not only unconscionable, but purposefully makes the system less efficient.
Many of these attacks cite the so-called “welfare reform” of the 1990s, when the government eliminated Aid to Families with Dependent Children—impacting almost exclusively female headed households—and replaced it with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. The program’s limits devastated the supports available to women and their children, and has been roundly criticized by numerous experts as a dismal failure.
Even as we try to grasp the onslaught of changes designed to continue to shred our safety net, framed by political leaders using rationales that debase those who are simply trying to feed their children, we can never forget that we are talking about real people, not mere statistics—and we are talking about millions of them.
I can only imagine how painful it must be to feel these attacks are leveled at you and your family. We must stand together in pushing back on these stereotypes, harsh judgements and cruel and unwarranted criticisms of our neighbors and communities.
Until we can change the system that allows people to remain hungry, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and our colleagues in the anti-hunger movement cannot and will not rest. Not while a mother still anguishes when she has to put a child to bed hungry. Not while those struggling still forgo help because of stigma. Not while anyone in our country remains unable to access the food they need to thrive.
I’ll admit it: I get discouraged. But I also remain determined. The landscape is tough. But we must not be hopeless, because we are not helpless.
We have seen what can happen when we raise our voices to speak up for, and with, those who have struggled silently with hunger. We can see a different future for those among us who have been stereotyped, stigmatized and dangerously impacted by needlessly politicized policies. And we have made our country’s response to hunger among struggling but over-looked populations a matter of national concern.
These are the reasons why we have hope. Because we’ve proposed truly meaningful changes that will alleviate hunger among currently serving military families; among those who live on Tribal lands and in rural communities; among seniors, veterans and college students. And now, these are the reasons we will add our voice to raise up the needs of single parent headed households, particularly those headed by women.
As a Jewish response to hunger, we know that we are not required to finish the work of repairing our world, but neither can we leave that work to others.
Together we can change how it is, to how it should be.