In the United States, more women than men live in poverty. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, of the 38.1 million people living in poverty in 2019, 56 percent—or 21.4 million—were women.1 The coronavirus pandemic has put individuals and families at an increased risk of falling into poverty in the United States, as they face greater economic insecurity, due in large part to unprecedented unemployment that has disproportionately affected women.2 Congress’ emergency unemployment assistance during the first few months of the pandemic staved off a predicted spike in the poverty rate; federal economic support must be extended throughout the duration of this fluctuating crisis to prevent an increase in the number of families living in poverty in the long term.3 Moreover, research has shown that the cost and financial burden of medical expenses in the United States pushes millions of families into poverty—a foreboding fact to consider in the midst of a global health pandemic.4 Illustratively, before the Affordable Care Act (ACA) expanded coverage and lowered certain health costs, a leading cause of personal bankruptcy was medical debt, resulting from unexpected or unaffordable medical expenses.5
The following facts present a snapshot of women in poverty, explain why women experience higher rates of poverty, and explore the policy solutions that can best ensure lasting economic security for women and their families.
The federal poverty line: An imperfect measurement of poverty
The poverty estimates included in this fact sheet are based on the federal poverty line, or the minimum annual income for individuals and families determined by the U.S. government to pay for necessities. In 2019, the poverty line was set at an annual income of $13,300 for a single individual younger than age 65 and $25,926 for a family of four with two adults and two children.6
While the federal poverty line is an important measure of economic insecurity and is widely used to determine eligibility for many public assistance programs, it is narrow and outdated.7 It takes into account the cost of food as a proportion of families’ expenses, but it leaves out geographical differences and other essential costs of living, such housing, transportation, child care, and medical costs. One study8 found that more than 50 million households struggle to pay for basic necessities such as food, housing, and health care—despite only 16 million of them being officially classified as “in poverty.” Another study9 found that based on an adjusted inflation measure, at least 3.2 million more people live in poverty than are counted by the federal government. However, due to the ubiquity of the federal poverty line and its real implications in determining people’s eligibility for various programs, the authors define poverty as individuals falling below 100 percent of the federal poverty line, unless otherwise specified.
Quick facts about women living in poverty
Women experience higher rates of poverty than men. In 2019, 12.9 percent of women lived in poverty compared with 10.6 percent of men.10 Nearly 10 million women lived in deep poverty, defined as falling below 50 percent of the federal poverty line.11
Race and ethnicity
Women of nearly all races and ethnicities face higher rates of poverty than their male counterparts. (see Figure 1) The highest rates of poverty are experienced by American Indian or Alaska Native (AIAN) women, Black women, and Latinas. About 1 in 4 AIAN women live in poverty—the highest rate of poverty among women or men of any racial or ethnic group.