The Women of Ellensburg: Issues of Women in Washington State
Poverty And Women
The Poorest People
The poorest people in this nation are women. The poorest woman in American society is the older woman of color; her poverty is followed by that of her white sister. A 1974 California study shows that the poverty rate among women is increasing dramatically as more women become single heads of households. Twenty-six percent of Washington's welfare families are single parent families, and the vast majority of them are headed by women. Although Washington ranks 10th in the nation in the amount of welfare grants, the grants of these families are well below the poverty level. A welfare mother with three children receives about $4,000 a year at the same time the Bureau of Labor Statistics establishes an income of $10,209 for a family of four and sets the poverty level at $5,500 in Washington.
Housing: A Woman's Issue
Even if a female head of household has a decent income, housing will be a critical problem for her. Landlords of rental properties discriminate against children, and banks, real estate brokers, and mortgage lenders have traditionally discriminated against women who want to buy their own homes. In her search for low-rent housing, a woman will find herself surrounded by other poor women and their children, perhaps in one of the female ghettos forming in this country like the High Point Housing Project in Seattle. Since units in better federally assisged public housing projects often have long waiting lists, poor women must frequently resort to marginally livable public units or a condemned house or apartment building. These old and poorly insulated homes are both drafty and dirty, usually have poor wiring and worse plumbing, and often have appliances and heating systems that fail. As a result of such a stark living environment, many women become resigned and give up.
Problems with the Welfare System
While the non-farm poverty income level in Washington has increased more than 50% since 1970, the public assistant grant has increased by only 10%. The welfare mother with three children receives approximately $350 a month. This money goes directly into the economy to pay grocers, clothing stores, landlords, etc; taxes are paid through sales tax on these items. She may not have enough money left after paying rent and utilities to buy the foodstamps for which she is eligible; if not, she and her children will suffer the effects of an inadequate diet.
Welfare today actually encourages the break-up of the family. If a welfare mother is deserted by her husband, her income increases - even though there is one less mouth to feed. When a woman goes on welfare, she is harrassed by bureaucratic demands that often seem meaningless. For example, one program demands that each participant report twice weekly in person to register for work, but the program provides no staff to assist in finding a job. A welfare registrant must fill out forms if she receives a gift or finds a short-term job, and a high proportion of such monies are deducted from her grant.
If she attempts to work, she will probably not find herself better off. She has probably been out of the labor force for many years and will face tedious work and low pay. If she has children, her child care costs will eat up a substantial part of her income.
Eliminating poverty for women - admittedly a long-range goal - could possibly be accomplished through methods like a higher minimurn wage, nontraditional job opportunities, day care, and an end to discrimination in housing. While this is being accomplished, the welfare system must become less bureaucratic and more supportive of the welfare mother's need to work, educate herself, and free her family from the cyclical nature of poverty.