The saying goes, “girls go to college to get more knowledge.” But what does it mean when the number of women living in poverty increases, even as their rate of education goes up?
Not only will women not make equal pay within our lifetimes, but according to a new study from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, they’ll be living in higher poverty rates, too. The newest installment of IWPR’s series, Status of Women in the States: 2015, the report found a decrease in the percentage of women living above the poverty line to 85.4 in 2013 from 87.9 in 2002.
As with the gender wage gaps, the issues are more pronounced in the Southern states—particularly Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. But nowhere are women completely insulated from the issue. The findings, using data from as far back as 1996, suggest that despite significant gains in education over the past two decades, women remain severely behind men in both economic stability and business ownership.
Nationwide, 15.5 percent of women live in poverty, compared with 11.9 percent of men. But the discrepancy in poverty rates worsens when considering race. The poverty rate for Native American, black, and Hispanic women is nearly twice the rate for white women. The number is highest in the Native American community, where 28.1 percent of women live below the poverty line (compared to 11.7 percent of white women). Single mothers fare even worse, listed as twice as likely to be living in poverty than single fathers, 43.1 percent vs. 23.6 percent.
“The persistent wage gap, even for women with bachelor’s degrees, in addition to high female poverty rates, and lack of educational access for Hispanic, black, and Native American women, all point to the need for gender and race-sensitive approaches to addressing income inequality,” said Barbara Gault, vice president and executive director of IWPR, in a press release.
The discrepancies are particularly frustrating given the gains in education women have made. According to the report, the rate of women 25 and older attending college and earning bachelor’s degrees (or higher) has increased from 22.8 to 29.7 percent since the last report on the subject in 2004. In 2013, 29.5 percent of men had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The report credits the passage of the federal Title IX law for narrowing the education gap and helping women excel.
Millennial women are leading the way in college education, with 36.3 percent having a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28.3 percent of men. The finding was particularly frustrating for Heidi Hartmann, the president of IWPR and a MacArthur Fellow. “Despite their significant educational progress, women remain more economically vulnerable than men and this is especially true for millennials, who represent the future of our labor market and economy,” she said. “The inequality between women’s and men’s wages and their differential poverty rates, at all ages and educational levels, is a significant part of the income inequality story that is not being told.”
In one bit of positive news, the report found the number of women who own businesses has increased from 26.0 to 28.8 percent. Still, women’s businesses were found to be in women-dominated fields, which may not have other employees. The amount of businesses owned by women of color has increased greatly. Of women-owned firms, women of color own 32 percent.
The IWPR ranked states for educational attainment and for business ownership. For both educational attainment and business ownership, the District of Columbia came out on top: More than 53 percent of women in D.C. have bachelor’s degrees or higher and 34.5 percent of businesses are owned by women. The worst state for women’s college education is West Virginia, with only 19.1 percent of women having a bachelor’s degree or higher.
If IWPR’s study is any indication, the United States has a long way to go until women and men—as well as minorities—are equal.