WOMEN AND CHILDREN LAST: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America by Ruth Sidel

WOMEN AND CHILDREN LAST: The Plight of Poor Women in Affluent America

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Half the American families below the poverty line--3.8 million in 1984--are headed by single parents, and almost three-quarters of the poor are either women or children; it is an issue worth educating the public about--no matter how drab the prose. Briefly analyzing how the Reagan administration has created a growing underclass of destitute women and children, Sidel writes, ""The very existence of large numbers of poor people in this country can open to question the heart of the American dream. . .In order to reaffirm our faith in the American Dream, particularly for ourselves, we must blame the poor for their poverty. With extraordinary cleverness, the Reagan administration has manipulated this belief to justify its economic programs."" The perpetuation of this thesis, argues Sidel, is Reagan's most significant and most pernicious accomplishment. His ability to express this philosophy in a mild, amiable tone of voice ""has permitted significant numbers of Americans to move their prejudices from the back of their consciousness to the forefront."" Sidel interviews women who grew up in upper middle-class families as well as women from ghetto backgrounds who gave birth to children while still in their teens. All eventually come to know the same severe, struggling abject poverty. A mother sees her annual income drop in a matter of weeks from $70,000 to $7,000 when her husband leaves her for another woman. Formerly affluent widows find themselves counting pennies for food as the cost of living outstrips their fixed incomes. A former welfare worker finds herself on welfare when her husband becomes addicted to heroin and alcohol. Ending the economic discrimination in ""women's"" jobs, possibly through some system of ""comparable worth"" and building dignity, a sense of autonomy, and pathways to promotion in traditionally female occupations, should be the central task of the 1980's, says Sidel. These ""female occupations"" are where the vast majority of women work and will continue to work for the foreseeable future. ""No matter what the trendy magazines and women's pages tell us, most women will never carry a briefcase."" As long as women continue to be kept in low-paying, dead-end jobs, making 62% of what men earn, women and children will come last. And although Sidel attempts to reveal how these women got where they are, what poverty does to them and their children, and how they cope, she never gets to the heart of what it's like to be poor in the richest country in the world.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1986
Publisher: Viking