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Edited by Olivia Morgan and Karen Skelton
The most common shared story in our country today is the financial insecurity of American families. Today, more than one in three Americans—more than 100 million people—live in poverty or on the edge of it. Half of all Americans will spend at least a few months churning into and out of poverty during their lifetimes. This economic immobility and inequality is a systemic and pervasive problem that President Barack Obama recently described as “the defining challenge of our time.”
The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink reveals this national crisis through the eyes of women. In an era when women have solidified their position as half of the U.S. workforce and a whopping two-thirds of the primary or co-breadwinners in American families, the reality is that a third of all American women are living at or near a space we call “the brink of poverty.” We define this as less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $47,000 per year for a family of four.
Forty-two million women, and the 28 million children who depend on them, are living one single incident—a doctor’s bill, a late paycheck, or a broken-down car—away from economic ruin. Women make up nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers, the vast majority of whom receive no paid sick days. This is at a time when women earn most of the college and advanced degrees in this country, make most of the consumer spending decisions by far, and are more than half of the nation’s voters.
The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink focuses the conversation on what working women need now to be successful in today’s economy, where women are powerful, but also powerless. Identifying why that is, why it matters, and what we as a nation can do about it is the mission of this report. What women need now is a country that supports the reality of women’s dual roles as by far the majority of the nation’s caregivers and breadwinners. At its heart, The Shriver Report is a call to the nation to modernize its relationship with women in order not only to strengthen our economy, but also to make it work better for everyone.
Or, as Maria Shriver says in her opening chapter, “Leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do.”
To put the sheer magnitude of this national problem into context, think about how different it was 50 years ago, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty and put Maria’s father, Sargent Shriver, at the helm of it. Operating through multiple nationwide programs such as Head Start, VISTA, Job Corps, Legal Services for the Poor, and Foster Grandparents, poverty was reduced by a striking 43 percent over the next decade.
Fifty years later, the extent of social immobility and economic inequality is much bigger and affects far more women and children than men:
- Back then, the focus was on the “forgotten fifth” of the nation, or about 38 million Americans. Today, that number has ballooned nearly three times over—more than 100 million Americans are on shaky financial footing. In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Today, the iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother rushing to get ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her aging mother with the other. The lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred, in part because so many more people are affected.
- Back then, the economy was expanding, the middle class was rising along with incomes, unemployment was about 5 percent and trending down, and we were racing to the moon. Parents had faith that the future shined even brighter for their children. Government was a trusted problem solver. Fifty years later, the economy is limping forward, unemployment is above 7 percent, wages are essentially frozen, and Americans’ frustration with and distrust of Washington are understandably at an all-time high. A family in the top 1 percent has a net worth 288 times higher than that of the typical American family—the biggest income gap for this country ever.
- Back then, women were mostly homemakers who depended on their husbands’ income. Fast forward 50 years, and only one-fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. In fact, two-thirds of today’s families rely on the mother’s income.
The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink addresses these vital national issues from a perspective that is often ignored. How do women affect our nation’s economic strength? How can we tackle income inequality and achieve greater economic mobility by investing in women? To answer these questions, we examine:
- Why millions of women are financially vulnerable when so many other women are breaking glass ceilings, graduating from college, and doing so well
- Why millions of women are struggling to make ends meet, even though they are working so hard and juggling so much
- Why working women are more likely to be poor than working men
- How our nation’s institutions—government, business, family, and even women themselves—are actually keeping women on the financial brink
This report details three major cultural and economic changes over the past 50 years that work against women and our economy:
- While women represent a majority of college graduates, they are also more likely to work in poorly paid “pink-collar” service and caregiving occupations that leave them financially insecure. That’s because even though this job sector is among the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, there is a shocking lack of wage increases and benefits in it.
- The American family has permanently changed, and women head up more families on their own. More than half of the babies born to women ages 30 and younger are born to unmarried mothers, most of them white. In our poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans and 85 percent of Millennials believe that government should adapt to the reality of single-parent families and use its resources to help children and mothers succeed, regardless of family status.
- For women today, a post-high school degree is a ticket into the middle class, but that education is increasingly harder to obtain. In our poll, women living on the brink said they overwhelmingly regret not making education a bigger priority.
Failure to adapt to these real transformations in American culture not only leaves millions of women and their families in jeopardy, it also deprives our economy of a huge spending stimulus from the tens of millions of women eager to have money to spend on their families and in their communities. Closing the wage gap between men and women would cut the poverty rate in half for working women and add nearly half a trillion dollars to the national economy. But it goes even deeper than that. Studies show that for children, the trauma and chronic stress of poverty are toxic and have lifelong health impacts—physical, emotional, and mental.
Today’s challenges require new solutions, so we present a combination of public, private, and personal recommendations that can help reignite the American Dream for women and their families. We have brought together the best and brightest minds and challenged them to collaborate with us to develop fresh thinking around these issues. Taken together, these ideas present a modern social architecture designed to make individuals, businesses, and government stronger, more innovative, and better tailored to the realities of today’s hardworking families.
The report details a set of public policies that, if adopted, would boost women’s potential as breadwinners: a higher minimum wage, improved access to work and income supports, and better opportunities to access medium- and high-paying jobs. Additionally, women need policies that support their breadwinning and caregiving responsibilities. An overwhelming 96 percent of single mothers in our poll say paid leave is the workplace policy that would help them most, and nearly 80 percent of Americans say the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable child care.
But we can’t wait for government solutions alone. Modernizing the nation’s relationship with women begins with women. Women on the brink of poverty themselves may be the key to leading our nation to economic prosperity—and the most important first step is their recognition of their own importance as providers for themselves and their families, as well as leading players in our nation’s growth. Our poll found that more than 7 in 10 Americans believe women play an essential role in the national economy.
With that in mind, we call on women and girls to make smarter choices about their finances, education, and personal relationships. The most important lesson we can impress on girls to keep them off the brink is “college before kids.”
Business has a role too. We examine the distinct challenges low-wage women workers face and present a first-of-its-kind compilation of questions for employers to help them identify and adopt the most effective workplace policies to help their employees prosper.
Finally, you have a role. We conclude with a call to action underscoring the ways that our readers can take action to help themselves, their neighbors, their communities, and their country push back from the economic brink. Top of the list: Read the report, get smart, invest in yourself, use your economic power, engage men as allies, vote, be a 21st Century “boss,” finance women’s work, mentor and motivate girls, and be an architect of change.
What makes this report unique is this combination of components: fresh academic research; groundbreaking poll results; authentic photojournalism; stories from the front lines and the trenches; and essays from box-office celebrities, experts, and leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Beyoncé, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Howard Schultz, LeBron James, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Ron Haskins, Stephanie Coontz, Muhtar Kent, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R-ID), Carol Gilligan, Angela Glover Blackwell, Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Sheryl Sandberg, Eduardo J. Padrón, John Bouman, Barbara Ehrenreich, Sister Joan Chittister, Eva Longoria, Tory Burch, Danielle Moodie-Mills, Heather Boushey, Ann O’Leary, Kathryn Edin, Nadine Burke Harris, Tony Porter, Jennifer Garner, Ron Manderscheid, Sonya Borrero, Shirley Sagawa, Ellen Galinsky, Melissa Boteach and Shawn Fremstad, Dr. Anthony Carnevale and Dr. Nicole Smith, Ai-jen Poo, Peter Edelman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Maya Harris, Mayor Betsy Price, and Leith Anderson. Most importantly, this report features the stories of real women who are doing what it takes to get and keep their families on firm economic footing.
They are all here together in the same place, and they are all contributing to a single issue of national importance: women and the economy. In The Shriver Report, Davos meets Main Street.
The multiplatform Shriver Report includes:
- The book. A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink is an eBook from Rosetta Publishing. In an initial four-day special offer—available from January 12 to 15—it is a free download on Amazon Kindle.
- The comprehensive, nonpartisan nationwide poll, commissioned by The Shriver Report, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research and TargetPoint Consulting, and supported by AARP, released on Sunday, January 12 on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.”
- The Thrive Index for businesses, developed for The Shriver Report by Ann Huff Stevens and researchers at the University of California, Davis. It helps managers identify company policies and best practices that promote the success of low-wage women workers, increasing their productivity and creating a thriving workplace for employees and employers alike.
- The Life Ed curriculum, developed for the report by Anne Mosle and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, which identifies the new set of tools and skills young women need to meet the demands of the modern era: financial literacy, self-esteem development, healthy relationship building, and the ability to find mentors and networks, as well as the critical importance of college and how to get there. It is a modern-day vision of the old home economics curriculum.
- The Shriver Corps—in partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service’s AmeriCorps VISTA program and LIFT—will develop and train volunteers across America who will put low-income families on firmer economic footing by helping them connect to secure housing and jobs and reducing barriers to access to public benefits programs.
- The photojournalism. The Shriver Report commissioned a team of award-winning photographers, led by former White House photographer Barbara Kinney, to document a day in the life of women living on the brink all over this country.
- The classroom initiative. The Shriver Report will be used in classes ranging from sociology and gender studies to public policy, business, education, and public health in colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard University; Georgetown University; Wellesley College; the University of Southern California; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Michigan.
- The Atlantic Presents: The Shriver Report LIVE, an all-day event held in partnership with The Atlantic on January 15 at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. The day features presentations and discussions with many of the contributors to the written report.
- The documentary. HBO’s Sheila Nevins and Maria Shriver have co-executive produced a documentary film, “Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert,” produced by Emmy® Award-winning filmmakers Shari Cookson and Nick Doob and airing March 17.
- The community. The website www.ShriverReport.org is hosting a growing community of citizen reporters around the country who are chronicling their changing lives.
- The media partners. Once again, NBC News brings this report to life, rolling it out across NBC News and MSNBC platforms. TheAtlantic.com is also featuring Maria Shriver’s essay and other reporting.
- The video trailer. The project trailer is available here.
The Shriver Report’s editor-in-chief is award-winning political strategist Karen Skelton, president of Skelton Strategies, and the managing editor is writer and strategist Olivia Morgan. The Shriver Report has a National Advisory Committee of 50 leading men, women, organizations, and corporations. The full list is available at www.ShriverReport.org.
This report was made possible through the generous support of the Ford Foundation; Wells Fargo; AARP; JPMorgan Chase; The California Endowment; The Coca-Cola Company; Marvell Semiconductor, Inc.; and several other contributors.
The Shriver Report is an initiative of A Woman’s Nation™, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded by Maria Shriver to raise awareness, ignite conversations, and inspire impact around the defining issues and fundamental challenges facing modern women. The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink is the third report in the series of Shriver reports and was produced in partnership with the Center for American Progress, an independent nonpartisan educational institute dedicated to improving the lives of Americans through progressive ideas and action. CAP is headed by Neera Tanden and based in Washington, D.C.