Unmarried Women Hit Hard by Poverty

Census Shows Most Poor Adults Are Women, Particularly "Women on Their Own"

New census data show that most poor adult Americans are women, and the vast majority of these women are “women on their own,” writes Liz Weiss.

Elderly, unmarried women—many of whom are widows or divorced—are particularly susceptible to poverty, particularly as retirement funds dwindle in the recession. (AP/Tony Dejak)
Elderly, unmarried women—many of whom are widows or divorced—are particularly susceptible to poverty, particularly as retirement funds dwindle in the recession. (AP/Tony Dejak)

New data released today by the Census Bureau shows a statistically significant increase in the national poverty rate in 2008. Most adults (18 and over) in poverty are women; 59 percent of adults in poverty are women; and 13 percent of all adult women are in poverty. Three-quarters of these women are women on their own—widowed, divorced, separated, or never married—despite being less than half (47 percent) of the population of adult women. These unmarried women have appreciably higher poverty rates than married women—20.8 percent versus 6.2 percent. Yet unmarried women live in a variety of situations—they may be living with partners, they may be mothers, they may be elderly—and each group has unique circumstances and needs. Indeed, poverty rates vary greatly for women by family status, age, and race.

In 2008, 39.8 million people—13.2 percent of Americans—were in poverty, a statistically significant increase from 2007 (12.5 percent), and a marked increase since 2000 when poverty was at 11.3 percent—its lowest level in a generation. Unfortunately, we know that the poverty picture has worsened in 2009, and these new numbers reflect only the first part of the current economic downturn. Unemployment in August 2009 was at 9.7 percent nationwide and nearly 12 percent for unmarried women (seasonally unadjusted). What’s more, long-term unemployment has grown considerably and food stamp participation increased by more than 20 percent between June 2008 and June 2009.

Women are more likely even in better economic times to face poverty than men, and unmarried women have higher poverty rates than married women. Yet the marital disparity has worsened since early in the decade. The poverty rate of unmarried women was 13.4 percentage points higher than married women in 2000, but it was 14.6 percentage points higher in 2008. The risk of poverty for women of color is even greater, especially for those who are unmarried. Thirty percent of unmarried black women and 29.5 percent of unmarried Hispanic women—of any race—were poor in 2008, compared with 18.5 percent of unmarried white women.

Elderly women

More than one in five (22.2 percent) women living in poverty are elderly women age 60 and older. Losing a husband to death or divorce can be devastating to women’s quality of life and greatly increases risk of poverty. Because the vast majority (95 percent) of today’s elderly population has married at some point, older women who are poor are almost all previously married. The new Census figures bear this out. Widows accounted for nearly half (45.6 percent) of poor women age 60 and older in 2008, and 65 percent of those over 75. An additional one-quarter (23.5 percent) of poor women 60 and over were divorced or separated. By the end of their lives, nearly all poor elderly women age 75 and older are on their own—more than 80 percent of poor women this age are unmarried and more than three-quarters of these live alone.

Nearly one in six elderly unmarried women age 60 and over (17 percent) was poor in 2008, and 16 percent of those 75 and older were poor. By comparison, only 5.5 percent of married women 60 and over were in poverty in 2008. The poverty rate of elderly unmarried women 60 and over was statistically unchanged from 2007. However, 19.9 percent of elderly unmarried women were nearly poor, with incomes between 100 and 150 percent of the official poverty level.

Despite the unchanged poverty rate for this group, policymakers should bear in mind that many elderly have declining assets, due to the collapse of the housing bubbles and falling stock prices. Many elderly women relying on their savings or hoping to sell their home will have less to live on, even though we cannot see this in the annual income figures.

Single mothers

Nonelderly unmarried women with children face very high levels of poverty. Nearly 30 percent of these 13 million families are impoverished, as are their children, which is statistically unchanged since 2007 (29 percent), but a significant increase since 2000 (less than 26 percent). In 2008, only 8 percent of married mothers were poor.

Many currently unmarried mothers were married at some point, but too often, the loss of a husband greatly increases a family’s likelihood of falling into poverty. In 2008, 36 percent of poor unmarried mothers were divorced, widowed, or separated, belying the notion that all poor mothers without a husband have chosen to have children outside marriage. Also, many unmarried mothers may be cohabiting with a partner or other adult, but that does not mean that they are less likely to be living in poverty. Nearly 38 percent of unmarried, opposite-sex couples had children in the household in 2008; yet 40 percent of unmarried couples with children lived below the poverty line.

Unmarried women without children

Many women today live alone or with other adults, such as roommates, siblings, or committed but unmarried partners, including same-sex partners. These women also experience disproportionately high levels of poverty, but much less so than those with children. In 2008, 18 percent of nonelderly unmarried women without children were poor, compared with just more than 4 percent of married women without children. About 39 percent of unmarried poor nonelderly women lived with other adults, but not with children, and 15 percent of these women lived alone.

The nearly poor

Today’s poverty numbers are stark, but they also mask the hardship faced by millions more families who cannot meet their basic needs even though their income falls above the official—and inadequate—poverty line. There are more than two million unmarried mothers who are near poor, with an income between 100 and 150 percent of the poverty level; and 15.1 percent of unmarried mothers are nearly poor. More than half of near-poor mothers are unmarried.


Unmarried women—particularly unmarried mothers and the elderly—represent the largest share of adults in need of government services, such as public assistance, housing assistance, and food stamps. Yet many childless, non-elderly adults are ineligible for most government programs. For childless women younger than 65, they may only have access to food stamps.

Congress must work, particularly in this economic downturn, to ensure that programs will help all people in poverty receive assistance, that poverty-alleviating programs receive adequate funds, and that these programs are strengthened to better serve those in need. This will include extending unemployment benefits, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless adults, strengthening the federal safety net, adopting a national anti-poverty strategy, and revising the poverty measure to better reflect realistic family budgets. The Center for American Progress has recommendations for alleviating poverty in its companion piece, “Poverty in the Obama Era.”

Data sources

U.S. Census Bureau, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2008, Issued September 2009, available at

U.S. Census Bureau, Data Ferret, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, March 2009, available at

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