Women and Poverty

When asked to write on poverty, my first thought was that women and children are most frequently the poorest of the poor. My research reveals that I was correct in my assumption about women – but with qualifications. And, I discovered a very exciting banking system designed to help poor women, an effort that seems to demonstrate an appropriate Christian response to those in poverty.

Sociologist Diane Pearce coined the term “feminization of poverty” in a 1978 article in Urban and Social Change Review, in which she argued that poverty in the United States was “rapidly becoming a female problem” and that women accounted for an “increasingly large proportion of the economically disadvantaged” (Pearce, 1978:28). Usage of the term became widespread and the picture of impoverished women and children captured public attention, especially the paradox that while women attempted to improve their lot vis-à-vis men, they were losing ground. Scholars debated the question of whether women were paying a high economic price for greater life choices and job opportunities.


Baringo Lunch

In her article entitled “Feminization and Juvenilization of Poverty: Trends, Relative Risks, Causes and Consequences,” Suzanne M. Bianchi summarized studies that compare women and men, single-parent and two-parent households over a period of thirty years, 1950s to the 1980s. Is poverty a peculiarly “feminine” problem? Are women and children always the poorest of the poor?

Bianchi concludes that while low income is a major problem for many women, especially those trying to rear children alone, trends differ depending upon whether the focus in is on relative risks or absolute levels of poverty. In absolute terms women are at greater risk of poverty than men. Mother-child families experience much higher poverty levels than two-parent families. But with respect to relative risks and trends in the “feminization of poverty” there are significant nonlinearities and peculiarities. These include the “de-feminization” of poverty after 1980 among adult, working-age women, the fluctuation in relative risks of mother-child families compared with two-parent families (poverty rose in both family categories in the 1980s), and the dramatic rise in relative poverty risks for elderly women compared to elderly men even as their absolute poverty levels dropped precipitously. (Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 25, 1999, p. 313).

Quite simply, all women in the U.S. have not been on a downward spiral of poverty during the last thirty years. Most often, however, women’s poverty rates are higher when compared to men. Add to that reality the responsibility that many women have for children, and the issue becomes more complicated.

Women in third world countries may have an even tougher battle against poverty for themselves and their children. Amidst war and famine, it is the women and children who suffer the most. Yet women manage to survive by using their wits and their powerful determination to take care of their families. The Grameen Bank is one of the few institutions in the world dedicated to helping poor women climb out of poverty.

I had not heard of the Grameen Bank until the news stories that Mohammad Yunus of Bangladesh, and the Grameen Bank had won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. During an interview on National Public Radio, Professor Yunus told of speaking to a group of young boys about investing and starting their own businesses. They responded by saying they didn’t know how to do that. Professor Yunus responded, “Ask your mother.”

Most of the borrowers of the Grameen Bank are women, 97 percent. Allowed to borrow money without any collateral, poor women use the money to start their own businesses, from poultry production and weaving to buying cell phones to rent to their neighbors for phone calls. Grameen methodology is not based on assessing the material possessions of a person (no collateral is required), but it is based on the potential of a person. Grameen believes that all human beings, including the poorest, are endowed with endless potential and that poverty is caused by circumstances beyond their control. With loans and repayment plans that are manageable, the borrowers are true to their promises: the pay-back rate is 98 percent. Grameen Bank works to raise the status of poor women in their families by giving them ownership of assets. It makes sure that the ownership of the houses built with Grameen Bank loans remains with the borrowers, i.e., the women. Believing that clients shouldn’t have to go to the bank, rather that the bank should go to the people, Grameen Bank’s 20, 223 staff meet 6.83 million borrowers at their door-step in 73, 223 villages spread out all over Bangladesh, every week, and deliver banks’ service. Repayment of Grameen loans is also made very easy by splitting the loan amount into tiny weekly installments. (http://www.grameen-info.org)

It seems to me that the Grameen philosophy embodies an appropriate Christian response to those in poverty. Jesus went out to the people and responded with great compassion to their spiritual and physical needs. He always treated persons, including women who had low status, with respect, believing in their worth, calling forth their potential and instilling hope in them as children of God. Jesus didn’t institute any kind of “means testing.” The issue was not whether these people “deserved” help. He simply addressed their need with skill and power and understanding. People in poverty need money, the means to make money and be self-sufficient and they need the hope that comes with seeing a way out. Followers of Christ will be in the midst of those who are in need, following the example of Jesus and his commandment to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:31-45).