Disability, Gender, and Poverty

I came across a new study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a D.C. think tank, examining the relationship between disability and poverty (pdf).

I was very interested to read this because, while its not discussed in this study, poverty in the United States affects women at rates much higher than men. “The US Census, which uses a comparatively conservative absolute poverty measure, reported in the last decennial census that overall 17% of females, compared to 13% of males, age 18 to 64 living in the largest US cities, had incomes below the poverty threshold. Likewise, 36% of female headed families with children under age 18, compared to 21% of male headed families with children, in the largest 70 cities, had incomes below the poverty thresholds.” For this reason, I think issues of poverty in general affect more women than they do men. Studies have also found that “women are more likely to experience disability than men, particularly disabilities related to mental health,” so the population of people with disabilities living in poverty is likely to have significant numbers of women in it.

According to the study, disability is an enormous factor in poverty. “About half of all working-age adults who experience income poverty have a disability, and … almost two-thirds of all such adults experiencing long-term, income poverty have a disability.” This means that, although poverty is often thought of as an issue primarily affecting Latinos, African-Americans, and other minority ethnic and racial groups, “people with disabilities account for a larger share of those experiencing income poverty than people in any single minority or ethnic group — or, in fact, all minority ethnic and racial groups combined.”

The study gives more information on the prevalence of disability in the overall population, finding that about 18.7% of the non-institutionalized population (excluding group homes, jails, etc)  reported some level of disability. About two-thirds of those people had a disability that “seriously interfered with everyday activities, made it difficult to remain employed, or rendered the person unable to perform or in need of assistance with various functional activities.” Looking at working-age adults over a seven-year period, the study found that “about one in four working-age adults experienced a disability [during the 7 years], but only 10 percent of them were disabled during the entire period.” This supports the view of disability as a dynamic phenomenon that can result in increases and decreases in the severity of impairments over time.

The employment rates for people with disabilities in the United States are strikingly low. Among women age 16 to 64 (considered working-age), about 65.8% of women without disabilities are employed, compared to only 26.9% for women with disabilities. The study attributes this discrepancy to both “the considerably lower rate of labor force participation among people with disabilities and a higher rate of unemployment for people with disabilities in the labor force. This means that women with disabilities are less likely to try to work, but even those who want and are actively seeking work are less likely to find it than women without disabilities. (I should note that per the study, “a number of EU nations — including all Nordic nations –and Canada have higher levels of employment among people with disabilities than the United States.”)

These disability rates and low employment rates have a drastic effect on poverty for people with disabilities. Of those working-age adults who experience poverty for at least 12 months, about half have at least one disability. Of those who experience longer term poverty, defined as at least 36 months of poverty during a 48-month period, have one or more disabilities. This does not mean that having a disability causes a person to become poor, or that being poor causes a person to become disabled, but suggests that there is a strong relationship between the two. A person who is poor and cannot access meaningful health care is unlikely to receive the treatment, aids, and other assistance that would help her to manage her disabilities. A person who is disabled is, as shown above, likely to have difficulty finding or maintaining employment, causing income loss and pushing them towards poverty. Basically, the two conditions reinforce each other and make it more difficult for an individual to address either one.

But we’re not done – there’s an additional problem. The poverty estimates discussed above define poverty using the Federal Poverty Rate, a rate determined by the U.S. Government and adjusted each year. Currently, a single adult without children is considered “poor” only if she earns or otherwise receives less than $903 per month, $10,836 a year. If she has a kid, the family is considered poor only if they receive less than $1,214 a month or $14,568 a year. There are significant criticisms of the current rate, which is calculated primarily on the cost of food and doesn’t account for regional differences in housing costs. Another problem with the rate, though, is that it looks only at income coming into a household and not the necessary costs  – which would likely be higher for people with disabilities, who need medical care, assistants, mobility aids, or other costs to achieve the same level of functioning as a person without a disability.

This means that people with disabilities are “40% to 200% more likely to experience various material hardships than people without such disabilities … among persons living below the current poverty line, a person with a disability would require income of roughly two to three times the poverty line to have the same lower risk of experiencing most material hardships as a person without a disability.”

I read A LOT about poverty and its causes and how it can be addressed through policy solutions and why current policies aren’t working. But the idea of viewing poverty as a disability-related issue is a new one for me. The study explains that this is common, as “contemporary policy debate and research about income poverty in the United States is largely silent about disability… books and papers by leading income-poverty experts and researchers only rarely discuss disability, if at all.” The mention a recent set of papers presented by the Brookings Institute on “high-priority poverty strategies for the next decade” that briefly mentioned disability issues in passing, instead focusing largely on issues of marriage. This is another way the issue intersects with feminism – many contemporary poverty policies are aimed at encouraging poor women to marry or penalizing them for having children, policies based on stereotypes of “welfare queens” or poor women having extra babies in order to collect additional welfare money.

This study makes clear that poverty must be examined and understood through a lens of disability in order for us to create and implement policies that will adequately address the realities. People with disabilities are much more likely to experience poverty than people without disabilities, and the vast majority of people who experience long-term poverty have disabilities. People with disabilities are less able to obtain employment even if they are actively seeking it. And people with disabilities are likely to experience more significant material hardships (lack of shelter, food, etc) than people without disabilities even if both are equally poor according to the Federal Poverty Level.

There is a glimmer of hope in the study, though, showing that this is not an inherent or unavoidable situation for people with disabilities. In fact, the study found that “the U.S. is a notable outlier when it comes to poverty rates for disabilities. The U.S. has a higher income poverty rate for people with disabilities than any other nation in Western Europe as well as Australia and Canada. A handful of nations – again mostly Nordic – have eliminated the disparity in poverty rates between people with disabilities and those with no disabilities.”

So my plan is either to import Nordic social policies or just export myself to Scandinavia. See you in Reykjavík!

6 thoughts on “Disability, Gender, and Poverty

  1. Honestly, this doesn’t surprise me as much as it ought to. I’ve actually gotten involved in some social justice groups and have noticed that people with disabilities are often ignored in their planning. Things like, holding meetings in physically inaccessible locations. Or not considering that not everyone may not have access to transportation.

    And that’s just thinking of issues that would involve motor disabilities. Throw things like hearing impairment and cognitive disability into the mix and it gets really hairy…

  2. Er… remove the “not” before “have access to transportation” in that last comment. I’m having a bad day keeping track of negatives today (see also the Recommended Reading comments). :-p

  3. So my plan is either to import Nordic social policies or just export myself to Scandinavia. See you in Reykjavík!

    A few Swedish people have assured me, independent of each other, that I’d like it there very much. And not to worry about not knowing the language as nearly everyone is bilingual. I’d just like to bring Swedish social welfare policy to Texas; it’s not just about me.

  4. Concerning gender, I’m interested in the numbers for trans folk with disabilities. I know that there’s a %35 unemployment rate and %60 earning less than 15,000 for trans folk generally, but don’t know how that falls in relation to disability. anyone heard of anything?
    .-= Wolfie´s last blog ..Ableist but it made me laugh so haaaard =-.

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