And the Poor (Women) Shall (Not) Inherit the Earth
In America we are often told that anyone can succeed. All you need to do is to work hard. Of course, it helps to be smart. And, of course, it helps to be white. And, of course, it helps to have a well-connected family. And just generally to have the kind of luck that means that you don't get hit by a car or a meteor or by a particularly virulent form of cancer. And, of course, more than almost anything else, it helps to be a man. One of the most accurate predictors of who will spend their old age in poverty is gender. Women end up poor, which affects every aspect of their lives. This paper examines one aspect of the intersection of poverty and gender: The relationship among female status, poverty, age, and housing.
Before beginning to explore the reasons why women tend to end their lives in poverty and in housing conditions that demonstrate their lack of wealth it is useful to make note of a number of basic demographic conditions. According to the U.S. Social Security Administration (which logs such figures for the entire U.S. population), women with all different marital statuses are economically worse off than are men with the same status. That is, never-unmarried women are poorer than married men, widows are poorer than widowers, divorcees are poorer than divorces. There are also important effects of what part of the country in which one lives in terms of geographic distribution. Even more important, as shall be discussed below, is whether one lives in a rural, urban, or suburban area, a factor that directly influences what type of housing is available.
There are a number of demographic factors that intersect with race and that affect the financial stability of older women. None of these, however, affect the basic truth spelled out above. White women tend to be better off financially than women of color, for example, but the above pattern still holds true in each racial group. Levels of education matter in terms of late-life financial stability as well, but once again women at every level of education are poorer than men in the same educational category. If one knows only a single fact about two people and wants to be able to make an accurate guess about which one is more likely to be poor, then one should choose knowing their gender.
Finally, sexual orientation also makes a substantial difference, no doubt in large measure because of the ways in which laws favor heterosexual couples. Lesbians are poorer than their heterosexual sisters in all categories and are also poorer in old age than are gay men. (It should be noted that while the topic of this paper is older women, it is also true that women are poorer than men at other stages in the lifecycle as well.)
A large amount of research has been done to determine why older women are much more likely to be poor than are older men. While this is not the main focus of this paper, it is essential to summarize these factors since the housing choices that are open to women in their last decades cannot be understood without a clear understanding of the factors that have accumulated along the course of their lives that have left them with so few choices in the area of housing.
Choices by young and middle-aged women
Scholars generally agree on the reasons why women are financially less secure than are men. As shall become clear from the following discussion, this is one of those areas of research in which knowing what the factors are cannot in any easy way be linked to creating public policy that helps address the problem in a meaningful way. The most important reason that women tend to face poverty in old age is that they still provide the lioness' share of childcare (Vartanian & McNamara, 2002).
As the primary caregivers of a family's children (and the primary caregivers of aging relatives also in many cases), women have far fewer job options than do men who do not have similar family responsibilities. This fact alone has substantial effects on a woman's lifelong earnings, her retirement and pension options, and her old-age choices about housing, healthcare, etc. Women are far more likely than are men to take off a number of years during what are for men (and would be for women) some of their most important years for lifetime earnings.
Women tend to be in their twenties or thirties when they take time off of work to have and care for children. These decades are generally not the years when an individual is being most highly compensated (which tends to come at the end of a person's working life). However, by taking time off of work at the same time that their co-generationists are establishing themselves in their careers, women who have children are dooming themselves to lower incomes (and less rewarding and prestigious jobs) for the rest of their lives. This choice thus has ongoing economic consequences long after children (and even grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren) have grown.
Diane & Lichter (1997) found that women are generally aware of the above pattern: Their subjects knew that by having children they would significantly diminish their potential to have financially rewarding careers. (One could probably safely assume that women today are even more aware of this fact.) So why do women still make the decision to drop out of the professional world to have children? There are complex cultural reasons that play into this decision (as well as complex emotional and psychological ones as well) but the bottom line tends to be -- well, the bottom line.
Because men tend to make more money than women in every field (and because on top of this most men are likely to be working in higher-status and better-paying fields than are women), men have greater economic standing in their households in most cases. This means that when a family has to choose which parent should quit work to stay home and raise children, the mother is the "natural" choice because she is contributing less financially (Dodson & Schmalzbauer, 2005)
A woman's leaving the labor market to bear and raise children for even a few years affects not only her lifetime earning potential but has a number of other consequences as well. Women qualify for lower pensions and less in Social Security benefits and are likely to have less money saved than is true for men. This is in part because of their lower salaries (assuming that women engaged in paid work at all) but because of a psychological dependence that women tend to adopt about money (Seccombe, 2000).
Harkness, Machin, & Waldfogel (1997) performed an elegant analysis of the relationship between married women, married men, and "pin money." Although the study is slightly dated and examined families in England rather than in America, it is extremely compelling for the current argument because it lays out the psychological dynamics of families in which men make either all of the money or the great majority of it. All of the income comes to be associated with the man, who then hands over a housekeeping allowance to the woman, even when some of this money is money that she earned.
Stapleton, O'Day, Livermore, Imparato (2006) argue that the most important change that can be made to ensure that women have greater financial security (including the security needed to find reliable and appropriate housing) is to bring about a shift in the way in which women view the money brought into the households of which they have been a part. Women do not feel that they have the same right to…