One of the biggest demographic suffering from endemic poverty is women and they are at risk of passing on that poverty to the next generation. Single women with children are at greatest risk of living in poverty. Women still earn less than men for doing the same job. Women without college degrees often work at low wage, low skilled and menial shift work. The hours are often unstable and it’s usually a job without any benefits. Often times these women who do low wage work have children they need to support. The economy since 2008 has been brutal for the American working class. All of the gains of the ‘recovery’ have gone to the top 1%; none of the gains have trickled down never mind to the working class, not even the middle class. The combination of low and stagnant wages, unstable employment, drastic cuts in social services, cuts in mental health services, the failure of Obamacare to bring quality care to everyone – has wrought havoc in the lives of women, some of this havoc has been deadly.
Middle class and working class families are hit the hardest. The incomes of the middle class is shrinking or stagnate. Working class women are struggling to support their families on shrinking wages and rising costs of living. People in general are working longer hours for less money and their jobs are more and more precarious. More and more people are falling into the ‘precariat‘ and ‘unnecessariat‘ categories, where they’ve become the excess people of society the ruling class wants to go away or wish didn’t exist. The people in this last group is getting larger. The study by Angus Deaton and Anne Case: Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, which was published in August of 2015 is still reverberating in the chattering classes. White people are the most privileged group on almost every criteria in America, how did one of the most healthiest (physically and economically) demographic in America began to decline so precipitously since the 1990s. The most alarming thing is working class women or women without a college degree are dying by huge numbers due to alcohol addiction, opioid addiction and suicide or what Case and Deaton call “death by despair”. Following this study, The Washington Post did a series of in depth reporting of death and addiction in white America called: Unnatural Causes: Sick and Dying in Small Town America, where addiction has decimated communities, ruined countless lives, and alarmingly, it’s the women who are succumbing to lives of misery, lost hope, missed opportunities and finally despair in huge numbers. People are committing slow suicide either by taking dangerous cocktails of drugs and combining them with alcohol and some have taken their own lives outright while under the influence of drugs and alcohol.
The subject of women and addiction is not normally discussed. When we talk about drugging and boozing, we think of hardened middle aged men who let their boyhood habits get out of hand. Addiction, specifically alcohol and opioid addiction when relating to women is still a bit of a taboo subject. Respectable women, especially women who are wives and mothers should not drink to excess where it becomes a ‘problem’ requiring treatment. It is seen as a personal weakness and a moral failure. The shame that is attached to every addict is magnified tenfold when it involves a woman. But as the Washington Post reporting shows, as the reporting went from town to town, trying to discover why so many people (especially white women) are choosing this dangerous path to an early but still a slow and painful death, many of the same themes keep reappearing. For opioid addicts, it almost always starts with an injury or chronic pain (migraines) where the doctor prescribes heavy opioids for an injury that may or may not require such, the patient gets addicted and tries to feed her addiction any way they can. When prescription opioids gets too expensive or the prescription refill limits have run out, they turn to heroin. Long term heroin use also has its own side effects, anxiety, depression and other health issues, which more pills are prescribed to treat those symptoms, many on prescription medication which suppresses the central nervous system are advised to not mix alcohol with their medications, but patients rarely listen or care about what can happen to them. The Washington Post also reported that white people are more likely to be prescribed heavy opioids than their Black and Latino counterparts, which is why opioid addiction is featured so strongly in the white community.
There is also the urban and rural divide. In rural middle America, where factory jobs were once plentiful, many have become industrial wastelands. More than half of the town emptied, people who were able to leave did, those that stayed are unable to leave and are left behind by the political establishment. There are no focus groups or lobbyists hired to peer into the minds of the America’s precariat and unnecessariat. The jobs have left town and so has everything interesting with it. One of the towns featured in the reporting is Bakersfield, in Kern County California, only two hours north of Los Angeles, Samantha Burton says “[it] can be a very stifling place. It’s culturally barren,” she said of Bakersfield. “There is no place where children can go and see what it’s like to be somewhere else, to be someone else. At first, the drugs are an escape from your problems, from this place, and then you’re trapped.” The only jobs available in these type of towns are fast food jobs, service jobs earning just above the minimum wage. Unlike previous generations, people who grew up in small town America who wish to escape it can do so by attending college in another town or by getting job in a bigger town, there wasn’t this feeling of being perpetually trapped in a small town with no hope of ever escaping.
In many cases, some women just give up. After enduring so many hardships, marriages, breakups, job losses, deaths of children or spouses, physical injuries, mental health crises, addiction, all of which receive little government or community support, it becomes too much to overcome:
When a woman dies in Kern County, it falls to Coroner Manager Dawn Ratliff to determine what happened. Her investigators explore medicine cabinets, flip through journals, scrutinize text messages and interview friends. Repeatedly, a pattern emerges, Ratliff said: A personal crisis leads to prescriptions to soothe the pain. And then they lose control.
“They are worn down. And they can’t rise above it,” said Ratliff, who puts the blame in part on the rise of social media, which can create unrealistic expectations about how life should go.
Another is an expectation for women to ‘be strong’, to take all the shit that life has thrown at her and somehow turn adversity into triumph and come out the other end ‘Lean In’ style: “Women have had to be strong for so long. Opioids are a good way out. Benzos are a good way out.”
Joan Knowlden, a psychologist who practices in Kern County California also observed “a sharp rise in middle-aged female patients in the early 2000s. Many had turned to alcohol, anti-anxiety drugs and painkillers to “mellow them out.”
Many had delayed childbearing, Knowlden said, and were trying to raise children just as they reached their peak professionally. Many were also entering menopause, which typically causes a drop in serotonin, a chemical that naturally soothes the brain. “With perimenopause and menopause, you already have anxiety, sleep loss, loss of bladder control and loss of sex drive,” Knowlden said. “It can just become too much.”
Middle age is assumed to be a time where people get their act together, to have finally figured out their lives and put the mistakes of their youth behind them. But it can also be a time where everything implodes all at once, where one more setback is more than they can handle. Job loss, injury, marital breakup and its fallouts (often poverty and living in reduced circumstances) can easily lead to depression and anxiety which a combination of medications are be prescribed to treat those symptoms. And in a society where women are not at all supported in any meaningful way when they encountered crises in their lives, it can make for deadly result. In the developed world, the United States is the only country which doesn’t require paid maternity leave or paid family leave when a family member falls ill, affordable subsidized child care is nonexistent, affordable housing waiting lists are so long that some counties have stopped taking names for the waiting list and now governors in many states are cutting the budget to life saving mental health and addiction treatments. All of these punitive draconian cuts harms working class women the most. Especially single mothers who are trying to support their children on single income, without help from anyone, any kind of health crisis or injury can put them under.
But what of the feminism and the empowerment of women since the 1960s people ask? Feminism means nothing if public policy doesn’t change to support the specific needs of women. All the feminism and college degrees in the world isn’t going to help women if ultimately, her two choices in life are having a family or choosing her career and if she chooses to have a family in the middle of the rise of her career, her career will most likely be stalled and forfeited all together some time down the road. If getting divorced and taking on the full responsibility of her children for a woman is almost always a road to poverty and ruin because social policies are not adequate enough to support single women with children, then no amount of feminism or self-empowerment will help her. If the government doesn’t enact state mandated subsidized child care for all women (rich and poor), poor women will never get ahead and women with advanced degrees will get stalled in her career should she choose to have children one day.
The Welfare Reform of the 1990s have also set women back, it decimated the support network created to assist working class women. The slow and systematic health care cuts, specifically targeting women’s health and mental health services have been detrimental to working class women, especially when they are in crisis. And when they suffer a breakdown as a result of economics induced anxiety, stress or addiction, the ruling class blames the victims of savage social services cuts for their own plight. They start using words like “personal responsibility”, “self respect” to people who are suffering from addiction and mental illness when in fact people living in derelict and neglected towns have been deliberately left behind to rot.
The ideals of feminism are totally pointless if no laws or policies are enacted to promote those ideals. While we cannot legislate our way into changing the mentalities of people (such as women are natural caretakers and men are natural breadwinners); what legislation can do is give women an equal footing in the workplace or at least not suffer gender based discrimination. Mandating federal paid maternity leave would go a long way to easing the anxieties of women (and by extension her family if they depend on her income) when they are about to have a baby. They won’t worry how they will manage the bills and rush back to work before she’s ready to because she needs to earn the family income. Federally mandated paid family leave will also go a lot towards easing the economic anxieties of families should a family member or child fall ill and a parent needs to step away from work and attend to that emergency.
The current system is not set up to benefit working families, it’s set up to punish them, where families are one disaster away from financial ruin. Any mistake, illness or injury which results in job loss can make a family homeless or live on the breadline. After twenty years of neoliberalism, we have been programmed to believe that our poverty is our own fault. That it’s the cumulative result of our mistakes (as if the rich never make any mistakes with regards to their finances) or short of that some people are just plain unlucky and they must grin and bear it. In fact, the reason why so many people have fallen into poverty or be forced to live in reduced circumstances is by design of the ruling class to keep a permanent and exploited underclass available for them to abuse, shame and blame for their own excesses. When President Obama was trying to sell the bailout to his voters who just enthusiastically elected him as the first Black president of the United States, anyone who opposed or raised concerns about the bank bailouts were dismissed as being childish and immature. But he went about it in a very clever way, ‘I understand your anger and rage, but this is how it’s got to be. Your day will come’. Of course it never did for America’s working poor.