After years of recession and lackluster recovery, somebody has finally stated the obvious: If women were participating in the American economy up to their potential, happy days would be here again.
That somebody is Maria Shriver. Fifty years after her father, Lyndon Baines Johnson aide Sargent Shriver, launched the War on Poverty, Maria Shriver has released A Woman's Nation Pushes Back From The Brink, 400 pages of well-researched, readable and insightful prose about the 42 million American women who live in poverty and the 28 million children who depend on them. You can download it for free.
Shriver makes a convincing case that it is in everyone's interest to help women in poverty reach middle class status:
We must recognize that our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don't take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women's new, central role is recognized and women's economic health is used as a measure -- perhaps it should be the measure -- to shape common sense policies and priorities for the 21st century.
If American women achieved equal pay with their male counterparts, the United States gross domestic product would grow by $447.6 billion.
The report does not solely blame the wage gap for the disproportionate number of women in poverty. It takes a hard look at falling marriage rates among low-income women; choices about education and family planning; and even that most intractable of issues -- the division of caregiving responsibilities within families.
The report is highly pragmatic, for all its celebrity essays. (In fairness, I loved LeBron James's tribute to his own mother, who was young, unmarried and poor when she set about giving her son a loving home.) While the report wrestles with large policy questions, it raises real struggles that low-income families face everyday. For example, some states count an automobile as an asset that can disqualify a family from food stamps. In many communities, it is impossible to get to work without a reliable car.
Poverty in America is a series of similar Catch-22s, a situation that is born of a lack of empathy of struggling families.
There's a strong thread in Shriver's opus of respect for the hard work that most women in poverty do working physical jobs, caring for children, caring for aging parents, coping with bad housing, bad transportation, bad almost everything. Shriver writes frankly about her own economic privilege but includes the voice of a single mother who says, "You should never judge a woman just from her present circumstance. You never know where that woman is going, and you don't know where she's been."
There's also an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich with an observation that should immediately be elevated to a proverb: "Poverty is not a character failing or a lack of motivation. Poverty is a shortage of money."
The report proposes practical reforms that would help more women (and their children) escape poverty. The list includes things that many women's and anti-poverty activists would endorse, like paid sick days and universal pre-K. I'm even more enamored of a call for women to take matters into their own hands by placing priority on their own education, using their purchasing power to insist that companies create better workplaces and investing in women entrepreneurs and non-profits that support the American family.
The case for building a system where the reward for a woman's hard work is stability and opportunity for her children has always been strong. But it is usually made among people who are already convinced. Shriver is using her high profile to talk to a much broader audience in an accessible and engaging way.
Here's hoping the message gets through.