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NONFICTION : WOMEN AND CHILDREN LAST: THE PLIGHT OF POOR WOMEN IN AFFLUENT AMERICA by Ruth Sidel (Viking: $16.95).

May 25, 1986|Marlene Strong Franks

The "feminization of poverty" has attracted a considerable amount of attention lately. Ruth Sidel, a professor of sociology at Hunter College, has gathered the facts and figures to detail the extent of that poverty; in addition, she interviewed almost 100 women across the country to round out the statistics with real-world details.

Sidel investigates the factors that lead to poverty for women and children--increasing divorce rates, non-payment of child support, a high unemployment rate for young men and blacks, the low wages women generally earn--and the consequences of that poverty: hunger, poor health and a general sense of worthlessness. She usefully reviews the growing literature on movements into and out of poverty; for most, being poor is a temporary plight. Sidel also points out the irrationality of a welfare system that doesn't pay enough to live on, but penalizes women for working by taking away their benefits before they can make it on their own.

While it is easy to describe the problem, effective mechanisms for change are not as obvious. Sidel rehashes the standard set of liberal solutions: universal social insurance, a full employment policy, comparable worth, a national system of day care, guaranteed health care for women and children. She argues that women and children must be given special consideration because their poverty is not their fault, while at the same time reminding us that separate programs stigmatize their supposed beneficiaries.

Government is good at some things--notably handing out money--and Sidel's arguments about prevention being cheaper in the long run are well taken. But rather than exhorting government to create a "humane environment," and women to help each other, what is needed is some notion of how women and men could work together to restructure work and family life so that some people--men as well as women and children--are not left behind on the decks of the economy.

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