Sponsored by the St. Cloud State University Women’s Center, this year’s first session of Women on Wednesday’s speaker was Debra Fitzpatrick, the director for the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota. Fitzpatrick was welcomed by a crowd of nearly 100 students and faculty in the Atwood Theatre Wednesday afternoon.
Fitzpatrick is also an adjunct professor for the Humphrey School of Public Affairs on the University of Minnesota campus. She has an extensive background in community leadership, advocacy for change, and a working knowledge of women’s issues. With this background, Fitzpatrick was able to offer insight on the extent and circumstances in which poverty has culminated today. Partnering with the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, she has put together a presentation to educate and bring awareness to the growing issue of people in poverty as a whole. Although poverty is not an issue that only affects one gender, women, particularly those of color, are often the face of poverty.
The statistics that Fitzpatrick provided stated that poverty is considered as earning between $16,000-$20,000 or less annually. However, this line is widely debated. In the U.S., nearly double this amount is needed just to meet families’ basic needs.
Fitzpatrick discussed a variety of topics related to the statistics on poverty in the U.S. as well as localized in Minnesota. She began on a positive note emphasizing how remarkable it is in recent years to see impoverished people taking to the streets to advocate for change in this country. A record number of minimum wage earners have protested, demanding wage increases and benefits that they are so desperately in need of. This is causing politicians to take notice, discussing the issues facing families such as child care, paid time off, and a host of other problems. “I think it’s encouraging that we see people take to the streets and fight for their families,” said Fitzpatrick.
Stereotypes of poor people have become a huge hurdle for them to overcome. “They are rampant,” Fitzpatrick said, “often perpetuated in ways to continue to create a situation where people have a harder time leaving poverty because of the way we think about and stereotype people who are experiencing poverty.” She explains that more affluent people refer to them as “those people,” but what they seem to be unaware of is that people in poverty, “at the very least, make a middle class lifestyle of our society today possible.”
According to Fitzpatrick’s 2014 statistics, there are three specific groups of people that poverty particularly strikes hard. These include minorities, new mothers, and the elderly.
Nearly twice as many women over age 65 are living in poverty compared to men. This happens because initially men are the breadwinners in the family. When the breadwinner is gone, in many cases due to death or divorce, the women are often left with no financial security and sometimes heavy financial burdens. This has been proven to lead to mental health issues which often go untreated due to lack of proper health care.
Since women’s wages are considerably lower than men’s, it is no surprise that they have a lower amount of retirement savings. This has led to a rising number of older women who are remaining in the workforce well after retirement age simply to meet their basic needs. Fitzpatrick notes that the wage gap between men and women is not changing the way it needs to in society. She believes that an institutional change of the wage gap would change the mentality of men’s and women’s roles in society. This change would invite more interest of men in caring positions such as nursing, and women in more physical positions such as fire fighting. Allowing such role reversals as a commonality would eliminate the wage gap, allowing for better pay and benefits for all positions.
Another large concentration of impoverished people is new mothers. Either single or married, new mothers face multitude of problems such as the rising costs food, child care, and health care: all of which are only multiplied with each child. Many parents earning minimum wage are working two to three jobs just to pay their bills. In fact, 80 percent of Minnesota women are in the paid workforce. These factors often lead to children being left at home alone as parents are working 24/7 or on call.
Minorities are also a commonly afflicted with poverty. Communities of color are increasingly challenged with obstacles of lower wage earnings, higher unemployment rates, and fewer job opportunities. These obstacles have continually plagued minorities throughout history and haven’t seen much of a decline, despite a rejuvenating economy in recent years.
In closing, Fitzpatrick explained that there are changes that can be made to alleviate poverty. For example, since women with master’s degrees currently earn just slightly above what men with associates degrees only earn, eliminating long standing ideas of what is appropriate work for each gender would allow each gender to be equally paid. “Janitors make an average of three dollars more an hour than child care givers in our state,” Fitzpatrick said. “I would argue that taking care of children and raising the next generation has a little more responsibility than collecting the garbage.”
Fitzpatrick maintained that making health care and child care more affordable along with providing benefits such as paid time off, retirement savings plans for all workers, and raising the minimum wage would help impoverished people tremendously.