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Women in Poverty in 21st Century America

By Paula vW. Dáil, PhD


WOMEN IN POVERTY IN 21ST CENTURY AMERICA by Paula vW.Dail, PhD is based upon the assumption that inequality and profit-motive capitalism are the root causes of America's poverty problem. This book presents a feminist perspective on the 21st century war on poverty.

Available through McFarland Publishers www.mcfarlandpub.com


WOMEN AND POVERTY IN 21st CENTURY AMERICA has received the Council for Wisconsin Writers 2012 Kenneth Kingery/August Derleth non-fiction book award and the 2012 Independent Publishers and University Presses non-fiction Book of the Year Gold Medal in the category of women’s issues. The book is also under consideration for a 2013 Pulitzer Prize.

WOMEN AND POVERTY IN 21st CENTURY AMERICA is a well-documented study of contemporary women’s social conditions. Interviews are very well done. The book will strike readers’ emotions with its caring representation of women’s dramas and suffering and presents a good blend of interviews with women-in-need and relevant info about government reforms.”

– IPPY Award Reviewer

Here is a thoroughly researched and well-balanced look at the largely ignored, downtrodden women of America. Author Dail brings expertise, compassion and hope to a sad situation. This is a book with great heart.

– Jim Barnes, Executive Director, Independent Publishers Association

My pick for the winner of the non-fiction book competition is Women and Poverty in 21st Century America by Paula vW. Dáil. "The poor are always with it." So goes the saying, and so goes the way most of us think about poverty - that is, if we think about it at all.

Reading this book changed my fundamental perceptions and perspectives on the poor, especially poor women. Dáil humanizes the concept of "the poor" by showing us individual women who live poor in 21st century America. In showing us their stories without judgment, but with plenty of context, she brings the grinding realities of daily life home to those of us fortunate enough not to be poor. By meticulously laying out the legislative and political frameworks of how poverty is seen and handles in America today she shows us both what's wrong with current approaches and how they might improve. She inspires readers to both care about the nameless poor and speak up, politically and personally, on their behalf. Finally, she offers hope that with enough of a paradigm shift in both attitude and approach, "the poor" might not always be with us.

- Harriet Brown, Judge, Council for Wisconsin Writers 2012 non-fiction book award, Assistant professor of magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in Syracuse, New York


In the world of poverty research Odessa was what’s known as a “key informant” – someone who knows everything there is to know about “ what’s happening” in the neighborhood.. Over the years I knew Odessa I grew deeply fond of her - she was smarter than any woman I’ve ever met, and for reasons I just can’t explain, we trusted each other.

“Bein’ poor’s real hard, honey,” she’d tell me, “and nobody understands just how hard hard gets…hell – nobody even cares.”

“If you’ll explain it to me, I’ll pass the word along…and try to make them care,” I always replied.

We had this conversation often, usually in Odessa’s row house kitchen in the Church Hill section of Richmond, VA. At that time Church Hill had the highest per capita murder rate in the nation, and on one particularly memorable steamy summer afternoon Odessa was telling me about last night’s neighborhood shooting, which occurred while she was unloading her car after a particularly lucrative night of trash picking over in Henrico, where the average per capita income tops $100,000 per year.

“I was feelin’ real good about what-all I found,” she said, “and then I heard the shots and I knew…” her voice trails off. “Later on I was driftin’ off to sleep in my chair when the police come bangin’ on my door wantin’ to know what I know about who shot Marco Jackman…told ‘em I don’t know nothin’ but they look at me like I’m lyin’ and say they’ll be back later wantin’ to talk to me again.”“Do you know anything?” I asked.

“Marco ‘n Lamont hangin’ out lately, so I hear things – and got me some ideas, but ideas don’t prove nothing, and nothing is exactly what I did see,” she insisted.Lamont was Odessa’s 17 year old high school drop–out son, and the father of two of the five grandchildren she presently had living with her. She made truly heroic efforts to keep body, soul, and family together on an income that wasn’t even one hundred percent of poverty, but it didn’t always work out, and several weeks ago she told me she was three months behind in the rent.

“I’m thinkin’ bout movin’ over with Mama… make things easier for me to look in on her, Odessa told me, “but having all these kids around would be hard on her – she only got two rooms.” Odessa’s 77 year-old mother recently lost her leg as a result of uncontrolled diabetes and was heavily dependent upon Odessa for her basic care. I asked what she’s decided about moving.

“Well…the rent got caught up but in return I got me a more pressin’ problem.”

“Which is…” I asked her, pushing my glass across the table and pointing to the pitcher of ice water

“The landlord offered me a deal and I took it – the problem I got now is I don’t need me any more kids – especially not one belongin’ to a slumlord white man – and looks like that’s exactly what I’m gonna get unless…” Her voice trailed off.

Odessa’s deeply lined face, framed by tight hair threaded with white, portrayed a haunting, beaten-down beauty. Life had already entirely exhausted her, yet worn out or not, she was still young enough to be pregnant – and I could certainly understand why she wouldn’t want to be. Nine people, including three teenagers lived in the three rooms she tried so hard to keep clean, but most days found impossible to do because roaches and rats occupied as much space as the people living there did.

“What are you going to do?” I asked

“I got ways to deal with this,” she told me, looking hard into my eyes.

“Odessa, lets think this through,” I pleaded.

“Nothin’ to think about, unless you can tell me just won the lottery…I’ll get it taken care of,” she added, still looking hard at me.

“Don’t do something stupid,” I told her, knowing she had no money for medical care of the sort she was referring to.

“You could get an infection – or bleed to death.”

“So what?”

“You could die,” I pointed out.

“This ain’t no life anyway, and the kids’d be better off if I was dead – they’d get orphan money from social security.” The decisive determination in her voice frightened me.

“The kids would definitely not be better off if you were dead – you’re all they have, and they love you dearly,” I argue. “You’re the glue holding their lives together, and the only chance they have at a better future. And without you Lamont’d get into a whole lot more trouble than he does now.” What I don’t say, but both Odessa and I know, is that the odds of any Black male surviving into adulthood in any inner city in America are extremely poor, regardless, because so many die by street violence.

“Besides, money’s not everything,” I said.

“Stop talkin’ to me like a rich white woman,” she barked at me – something she rarely ever did.

“I can’t help it I’m a white woman.” I barked back, knowing I deserved this one.

“Don’t worry about it,” she told me, after several silent minutes, and indicating our visit for this day was over.

On the way back to my office I stopped by a Planned Parenthood Clinic to inquire about the services they provided. The next day, with some extra cash in my pocket, I had another conversation with Odessa. Early the following Monday morning I dropped her off at the side entrance to a plain gray building, handed her an envelope, and returned to pick her up later that afternoon.

The next year I received a personal invitation to attend Lamont’s high school graduation.

This story is the reason I did poverty research for more than twenty-five years. I knew I could earn five times as much in private sector employment, but I have no burning passion for earning money. What I cared about when I began, and still care about now, is the plight of the poor, particularly poor women. And what I’ve never been able to accept, even after I fully grasp that poverty is a political problem as well as a side effect arising from our profit-motive, free-enterprise economic system, is that our affluent nation has never been willing to do what it takes to fix the problem – and it is fixable.

This brief glimpse into Odessa’s life provides a good illustration of what life is typically like for an urban poor Black woman. It’s damned hard – harder than most people can begin to imagine - and I am compelled to write this monograph about women in poverty because of my membership in the sisterhood of all women, all of whom are, in some way or another, just like Odessa. The Odessas of the world taught me a lot over the years, and I came to deeply admire their extraordinary street smarts and self-invented survival strategies.

My realizations about how women experience poverty grew along with my research, until ultimately I knew I would have to find some way to transmit their stories – and clearly the most effective means for accomplishing this is to encourage these women tell their own stories in their own words. As the writer of these stories I am merely the instrument through which poor women try to explain just exactly how hard hard is – and am trying to make the world understand poverty a little better and, perhaps, care a little more.

I am also compelled to write this monograph as a way to offer my insights into the policies governing the lives of poor women. Most of my years of active poverty research occurred during Republican administrations resting on the philosophy of less government and individual self-reliance. President Reagan believed homeless people chose to live this way and legislators claimed they never saw any poor people, entirely ignoring the fact that just because they didn’t see them didn’t mean they didn’t exist. I never understood the term “compassionate conservatism” because I never saw any policies enacted during the Reagan era or either of the Bush administrations that indicated a paramount concern for the poor and less advantaged.

A massive overhaul of the existing American welfare system occurred in 1996, during the democratic administration of President Bill Clinton, who admitted discomfort with the legislation and termed it “only a start.” In reality, even during the 1990’s the rules set into place by policy makers in Washington, and in state houses across America, by heavily male-dominated legislative bodies of elected officials who are not living in poverty, and most likely never had to choose between paying the rent or feeding their kids, are based on a business model that is foremost concerned with the bottom line. This means that the basis for most policy decisions is protecting the dollars needed to support the popular programs that bring in the large campaign contributions elected officials need to get re-elected.

Convincing politicians to use public dollars to support the documented needs of the poor, who neither financially support campaigns nor vote in appreciable numbers, is like trying to nail jello to a wall – it rarely sticks. I once spent an entire afternoon testifying before a local government board in a uniformly poor rural county that was trying to decide whether to put money into supporting the construction of a badly needed local shelter for battered women, nearly all of whom were poor, or building a new county road. “If you can tell me how I can convince my constituents that they ain’t getting’ a road they want because I voted to support buildin’ some house for women who got their britches in a ringer over somethin’ and left their husbands all alone when they oughta be home takin’ care of family business like God ordained them to do, then I’m real interested in hearin’ all about it, honey,” the board chair, a tobacco company executive, told me.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first, or the last, time I’d heard a similar argument. Time and time again roads won the day and women and children almost always came in last.

In difficult budget times, which are just about all the time, human services and poverty programs, which are closely aligned, are nearly always the first to go on the chopping block – the reason being that concern for the bottom line is generally always greater than concern for our fellow citizens well-being. The explanations for this somewhat uniquely anti-socialist American viewpoint are best left to the social philosophers. What I am interested in providing is a first hand glimpse into the lives of poor women as they navigate their way through the policies they had no voice in developing, yet are forced to live with day in and day out. I’m trying to clearly illustrate just how hard hard is, and hopefully I have been successful enough to make people care.

Paula Dáil

Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin

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