Family poverty & the feminisation of poverty

December 4, 2012
Women's Rights
This article is a complement to our series on women in poverty, focusing mostly on developing countries, we'll look here at a more general picture of family poverty around the world. What challenges families face, the causes of poverty in children and women as well as the role of governments in helping them... or in making things worse.

Women and their children face more and more challenges nowadays. Why them in particular? Because for the first time in history, women have numerous ways to choose not to obey their husbands or communities – as they feel oppressed or are victims of violence and discrimination.

This in turn affects their children, because they witness the violence, sometimes lose the opportunity to go to school or because they suffer from the consequences. If a mother has work and raise kids all alone, without the right help and institutions this often causes children to suffer from preventable diseases as the family has to move to improper housing, downgrade its living standards (hygiene, foods), etc...

Our societies are going through deep changes worldwide and guaranteeing one’s freedom means also guaranteeing their basic rights: access to employment, housing and healthcare. In the case of women’s emancipation, it’s not just about their rights or freedom anymore, but it’s also about making sure that their children’s rights (e.g. education, basic needs) are respected as well.

Characteristics of family poverty

feminization of poverty impact on families
‍Impact of the feminization of poverty

Cultures of compassion

It’s hard to make generalizations about family poverty, because all over the world the bonds that create families are so diverse. In certain cultures, these ties are much stronger than in others or sometimes more codified (i.e. social norms) in terms of who should do what and how to behave. And this has a massive impact on how families react when faced with challenges or threats.

Recent research showed very interesting results concerning which type of organization or behavior works best within families when they have to cope with hard times. The study shows that, when you trust someone, the large majority of people feel compelled to act positively, instead of trying to cheat you (this in fact is also true outside the family circle). Between family members, those who are forced to be nice to one another by their parents actually end up trying to take advantage of their brothers or sisters.

On the other hand, if people are truly concerned about one another, they’re not just happy to help their siblings, it also reduces stress about what will happen if they’re in trouble: they know that their siblings will be there to help them as well. This reduces the overall risk and consequences of suffering from disease, hunger or unemployment for the entire family.

Watching each other’s back (willy-nilly)

However, for people who are plagued by excessive selfishness, it seems that when families force them to fit in the mould of kindness and empathy, it does lead to (limited) positive outcomes, at least for the greater good including the selfish one (who will receive help from others… willy-nilly).

As long as people are rewarded morally and materially for sharing with others, they will have an incentive to keep on investing in the group rather than only in themselves. This sort of behavior makes a big difference in micro-credit programs when small loans are granted to a community or a large family. 

Thus, finding out about the culture and dynamics of local communities becomes a very important factor to understand which programs will be effective to tackle family poverty. If a person acts selfishly, then chances are he’ll try to cheat the others, for example by refusing to pay back the loans that he or the whole group took.

Women's access to education

education women and family
Access to education for women and their kids needs to be improved

The common challenge that millions of women face around the world is having to raise a family on their own. Of course there are different reasons for that. In some countries, women run away from their violent husbands, in others the husband died from preventable diseases, sometimes it’s a simple case of divorce and so on.

The real problem comes after when women have to make a living all while raising their kids on their own. Most of the time, this situation creates more family poverty, be it for a few years or for a lifetime. The core of the problem is that in many countries, to begin with the United States, a single salary isn’t enough to sustain a family. That's where they fall into poverty. This is a systemic problem of the labor market that simply doesn’t provide wages high enough at the so-called bottom of the pyramid (i.e. where the poorest are).

The education trap

While welfare programs do alleviate poverty, in the case of the US for example, it’s become obvious that they often don’t help actually lifting people out of poverty for good. They just make life more bearable.

There are several reasons for that and trying to sum up the whole situation in one sentence is just simplistic and idiotic. Why ? Because these families have very different needs. In some cases, the best way out is to invest in children’s education, but most countries have failed to do so and the result is none of these kids go to university.

poverty has a woman's face

In other cases, it’s women who need education and by developing a few well-chosen skills they could actually earn a decent living that could reduce family poverty. But training programs aren’t for everyone either, some women already have experience or specific job skills and need economic support while waiting for the job market and the economy to be fixed. 

Hoping that happens sooner than later. Or maybe they need help with job-hunting, finding and targeting the right sectors which can make good use of their skills (e.g. help with CVs, job search or job interviews).

No magic bullet, no cookie-cutter

The truth is no one wants to look at complex problems, instead trying to simplify everything is a much easier solution… except it never solves anything. It takes decades for governments to realize that you just can’t offer ready-made solutions to families who have completely different needs. 

For example, a young educated mother raising two kids will need economic support for 4-5 years, just the time that she gathers reasonable work experience until she can get a job that pays enough to sustain the household. But if she doesn’t get help when she needs it, then things can quickly turn sour for everyone.

On the other hand, some uneducated moms may need intense help not just finding a job but also to raise and educate their kids. There are often hygiene, lifestyle and diet issues (e.g. junk food) that can harm children for a lifetime if they’re not addressed early on. Knowledge of how to raise kids is always passed on by the older generations, and it’s difficult for women who have lost their ties to their family – for one reason or another.

Tailoring welfare for families

welfare for families living in poverty

Thinking with families, not for them

It can be very tempting for governments to try to impose a certain lifestyle on people, especially on women, according to what they believe is right for them. All around the world, men think and debate on behalf of women about what they think is best for them… which often reflects their own interests rather than those of the female-headed families.

The problem with this is that it’s based purely on personal beliefs and views rather than facts and reality. They think that certain families are poor because they’re lazy or because they’re just not cut for education and getting high skilled jobs. 

In other words, pure discrimination plays a big role in causing family poverty. In this sense, many welfare programs actually do more harm than good – because they were not designed with families’ real interests in mind or with real data to craft their programs.

What sort of social assistance is needed then?

An efficient welfare program needs to realize that women have very different needs. And the thing is, welfare alone can’t do the job for a whole country. It needs to be completed with an education system and a job market that are effective and deliver their promises.

There are recurring problems that create ever more family poverty across several countries and that need very different types of support:

  • Healthcare costs are a huge burden on the finances. In rich and poor countries, families can’t save any money because of this;
  • The same goes for child care, especially with single mothers who need help with their kids when they have to go to work;
  • Providing parenting support with nurses and experts on education. If the parents are separated, fathers should be encouraged to help as well. When living in poverty, parents can be under a great deal of stress that will affect their children one way or another (alcohol, substance abuse, work-related stress and hence lack of patience).

Other ways to alleviate family poverty

Other key changes that will change the life of millions of families in poverty is to make sure the minimum wage is set at a level allowing them to live decent lives. Also, offering sexual education and contraception helps prevent unwanted pregnancies that are a major cause of poverty in teenagers. This is one of the main reasons for young women dropping out of school and it causes them massive problems to find a job later on.

What else ? Making sure people have a right to affordable, decent housing (i.e. not slums) can make a huge difference. It is in fact one of the most basic human rights, recognized by most countries in the world, but guaranteed by only a few. What’s more, it goes without saying that building a "healthy" economy that provides jobs for everyone can lift millions of families out of poverty…

In the end, whatever type of welfare you go for, make sure it remains focused on women’s and children’s well-being (education, hygiene, diet). Investing in well-being and in people’s needs remains one of the best ways to tackle poverty in the long run.

How to best fight family poverty?

Women, at the center of families

In recent years, new tools to lift women out of poverty (e.g. micro-credit) have completed a very limited list of strategies dedicated to fight the feminization of poverty. But governments shouldn't ignore the basic changes that can turn millions of lives around - as it happened in developed countries in the 20th century. In Europe, the world wars caused very deep social changes by bringing women into the factories since men were busy fighting on the front.

Long story short, the changes that have had the biggest impact were all based on the idea of gender equality: providing women the same rights as men. That entails, giving them the right to own land, to start and own a business, but also the right to access common goods and services: healthcare, legal help, employment but also tools and resources shared by a community (e.g. land, forest).

Working (way) more than men think

The result of recent studies on families living in poverty pointed out the huge amount of work that women carry out by taking care of their kids and helping out in their community all while going to work (when possible). 

But what made a difference in terms of bringing equality of rights for women has been the presence of organized groups who campaigned together and shared information and skills to find jobs and create change in their country.

After all, single parent families are often made of women who decided to build a new home because life under their husband’s roof was not bearable. In a sense, these women live in less poverty than they previously did, but they often need support to set up this new life - as anyone would.

The best strategy is always to offer both job opportunities and training, along with social safety nets to help with the kids and coping with the temporary lack of income. And this obviously means that governments should make sure that women and children are entitled the same rights as those with higher social status. But then again, that's if they really want to fight family poverty. More often than not, they really couldn't care less.


  • Header photo courtesy of Juan Luis Sanchez
  • Family Ties, Incentives and Development, Ingela Alger, JÖrgen W. Weibull, Arguments for a Better World: Essays in Honor of Amartya Vol II Sen 2008
  • Measures for Studying Poverty in Family and Child Research, Mark W. Roosa, Shiying Deng, Rajni L. Nair, Ginger Lockhart Burrell, Journal of Marriage and Family 2005
  • "Beating the Odds" versus "Changing the Odds": Poverty, Resilience, and Family Policy, Karen Seccombe, Journal of Marriage and Family 2002
  • The Risk and Protective Functions of Perceived Family and Peer Microsystems Among Urban Adolescents in Poverty, Edward Seidman,2 Daniel Chesir-Teran, Jennifer L. Friedman, Hirokazu Yoshikawa, LaRue Allen, and Ann Roberts, J. Lawrence Aber, American Journal of Community Psychology 1999
  • The Implications of Family Poverty for a Pattern of Persistent Offending, Carter Hay, Walter Forrest, The Development of Persistent Criminality 2009

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Dario Berrebi

Digital strategist, researcher & filmmaker. 

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