Linda Tarr-Whelan

The rising tide of American economic progress isn’t lifting all women’s boats.

In fact, the nation’s poorest women are being left high and dry, according to a state-by-state analysis of economic data conducted by the Washington-based Center for Policy Alternatives.

The center’s report, “State of the States: Facts on Women & The Economy,” includes some disturbing results about women’s earnings and women and children’s health insurance coverage.

The center reported that 40 percent of all female-headed households live in poverty. That is not surprising, the center noted, when minimum wage workers–60 percent of whom are women–make only slightly more than $10,000 annually. A distressingly high 24 states reported a median annual income for full-time, full-year employed women that was below the federal poverty level of $16,895 for a family of four.

map showing percentage of women living below the poverty line in each state

In 19 states, the percentage of women living below the poverty line actually grew from 1990 to 1998, the report found.

In 25 states, more women lacked health insurance in 1995 than two years previously and in 37 states more children lacked health insurance in 1998 than four years before.

The figures buttress what advocates for poor women have said all along: The only successful way to move women off welfare is to offer comprehensive support services and place them into jobs that pay wages sufficient to support a family, said Linda Tarr-Whelan, the center’s president.

She noted that Wisconsin, a model for what would become a national welfare reform movement, seems to have done better than many other states. Just 9.3 percent of women there still are considered poor; all but 7.9 percent have health insurance, as do all but 6.9 percent of children.

However, poverty rates for women rose in some of the country’s wealthiest states–California, Illinois and New York among them. Those states are doing much less to help women once they have been taken off welfare, she observed.

“Almost all of these states have a surplus left in their federal welfare money and they have not spent the money on these support services,” Tarr-Whelan said.

“It’s not because they don’t have the money. It’s because they don’t have the will.”

The growth in poverty rates is particularly troubling to economist Randy Albelda because it shows the nation’s poorest women are faring worse in today’s booming economy than they were in 1990, a recession year.

“What that seems to say is that what we have been calling the new economy…is very unequally distributed. On average, we’re doing well, but those at the bottom are not doing well. Indeed, they’re doing much worse,” said Albelda, co-author of “Glass Ceilings and Bottomless Pits” and a professor of economics at University of Massachusetts-Boston.

In Texas, home state to presumptive Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, the poverty rate for women was 16.7 percent in 1998, a scant 0.7 percentage point decline from the 1990 rate. Women and children fared even worse when it came to getting health insurance in Texas. The state ranked last on both fronts–with 22 percent of women and 25.3 percent of children without insurance.

In Tennessee, the state Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, calls home, the women’s poverty rate was 15.9 percent, down 0.5 percent from 1990. The state has one of the best rates of health insurance for women, with 7.8 percent reporting they had no insurance in 1995. Tennessee doesn’t fare as well when it comes to children, however, with 13.4 percent of its youngsters living without health insurance.

In New Mexico, which ranked last overall on the list, the percentage of women in poverty grew by nearly 2 percentage points to 21.6 percent–more than one in five women.

Several states in the Deep South reported gains of 3 percentage points or more–although their poverty levels for women and rates of women and children without insurance remain unacceptably high. The figures are further indications of a trend that has been noted over the last two decades: Poverty is becoming an urban, rather than a rural, problem.

Mississippi, the poorest state for women, had 3.8 percent fewer women living below the poverty line in 1998 than 1990, although the rate still hit 21.4 percent. Slightly more women and children were insured, but 18.4 percent of women and 19.5 percent of children still lacked coverage.

Women living in New Hampshire, Alaska, Utah, New Jersey and Wisconsin were the least likely to be poor, the analysis found. Those states did not fare quite as well on health insurance coverage rates, but only Alaska and New Jersey reported more than 12 percent of women or children lacked coverage.