The latest census figures show that in the U.S. women are more likely to live in poverty than men, particularly if they’re raising families alone. In total, 14.5 percent of American women lived in poverty in 2012, compared to 11 percent of men. At every age women are more likely to be poor than men. Even girls under age 18 are slightly more likely to live in poverty than boys are. What could be causing this disparity?
As James Taranto explains, the difference can partially be explained by the advantages — biological, cultural, and legal — women have over men. For example, the reason why there are more girls than boys living in poverty is because girls are less likely to die than boys:
The answer to this mystery can be found in the Social Security Actuarial Life Table, which charts, by sex and at every age from 0 to 119, the probability of dying in the next year, the average remaining life expectancy, and the number (out of 100,000) who are still alive at that age. The table gives us three pertinent facts about Americans under 18:
• Boys have a higher infant-mortality rate than girls. Out of 100,000 live-born boys, 699 die before age 1. For girls the figure is 573. That means the infant-mortality rate for boys is approximately 20% higher than for girls.
• Out of 100,000 boys, 1,140 die before age 18. For girls the figure is 867. (These figures include infant deaths.) That means the total mortality rate for minors is 24% higher among boys than among girls.
• Boys are likelier to die than girls at every age except 10 and 11. Those are the ages at which persons of either sex are least likely to die, and the sex differences at those ages are minuscule.
Mortality among infants, children and teens is correlated with poverty for a variety of reasons, including greater exposure to abuse, neglect and crime and poorer quality of nutrition and health care. Boys are at greater risk than girls because they tend to be less robust physically and, as they get older, likelier to get involved in crime and other dangerous behavior. So if there are slightly more impoverished girls than boys, it is likely because poor girls have a better chance of surviving to adulthood than their brothers do.
Taranto’s explanation is an important reminder that advantages can often produce disparities that are both beneficial and harmful at the same time. For instance, being female is beneficial to survival. Yet it can also mean that one is surviving in poverty longer than would a man. That is both a blessing and a curse — though mostly a blessing. (Generally speaking, the worldly benefits of being alive are greater than the benefits of being dead, so being a young women buried in poverty is still better than being a young man buried in the cemetery.) If women were as likely as men to live in poverty it would likely be a sign that impoverishment was causing them to die a faster rate than normal.
The fact that there are more women than men in poverty should therefore not surprise us. We live in a world that is both corrupted by sin and constrained by nature. All men and women eventually die (a result of sin), but, on average, women tend to die later (as a result of nature). This may seem obvious but it’s surprising how often reality is overlooked when making decisions about social policy
Christians should approach issues such as poverty and equality in a way that is reality-bounded. We should recognize that sometimes our earthly situation looks bad only because common grace has kept it from being much, much worse.