Commentary Race

The 47 Percent: Women Make Up the Majority of the Working Poor and Those Reliant on Social Security

Sheila Bapat

Those who insult the middle class and the poor are ignorant about gender and the economic lives of women in the United States.

A controversy erupted yesterday over a video tape released by Mother Jones  in which presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney referred to the 47 percent of voters he claimed rely on government benefits at various points in their lives. The assumptions inherent in these comments are, however, erroneous and particularly problematic with respect to women’s economic status.

According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), the poverty rate among women in 2011 was 14.8, meaning nearly 18 million women in the United States were living in poverty, an 18-year high. (The poverty rate for men was lower, at roughly 11 percent.) Among women heads of household—single people who manage to support children on their own—40 percent lived in poverty.

Also among the 47 percent? Elderly women, whose poverty rates have increased dramatically in recent years.

At the same time, it was government programs, as the NWLC points out, that also kept people out of poverty. Social Security kept over 21 million people out of poverty including one million children. Unemployment insurance kept 2.3 million Americans out of poverty, including 600,000 children. Food stamps and earned income tax credits helped as well.

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While, because of a bad economy, more Americans may be in need of some type of government benefits, in some cases fewer are continuing to receive them.

A piece from The Nation in May crystallizes what life has been like for many families who belong to the 47 percent who have relied on unemployment benefits recently:

During just one weekend in May “230,000 people who have been looking for work for over a year lost their unemployment benefits. More than 400,000 people have now lost unemployment insurance (UI) since the beginning of the year as twenty-five high-unemployment states have ended their Extended Benefits (EB) program.”

“Many of these people have been looking for work for well over a year and now their UI benefits have ended sooner than expected,” Hannah Shaw of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told The Nation. “Many families rely on these benefits to make ends meet [and now] many are left with little else.”

These are the very “dependents” who have been hit hard by the economic times, and these are the same folk who paid for things like unemployment insurance to insure themselves against bad times.

Today, many hard-working people are also using government benefits because their part time or freelance jobs aren’t producing enough income or because there simply aren’t viable employment opportunities — realities that dash the assumption that people on public benefits have a disdain for personal responsibility and hard work.

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