Promoting the General Welfare: Legal Reform to Lift Women and Children in the United States Out of Poverty

47 Pages Posted: 29 Aug 2013

See all articles by Jill C. Engle

Jill C. Engle

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law

Date Written: February 2013


American women and children have been poor in exponentially greater numbers than men for decades. The problem has historic, institutional roots which provide a backdrop for this article’s introduction. English and early U.S. legal systems mandated a lesser economic status for women. Despite numerous legal changes aimed at combating the financial disadvantage of American women and children, the problem is worsening. American female workers, many in low-paying job sectors, earn roughly twenty percent less than their male counterparts. Nearly forty percent of single mothers and their children subsist below the poverty level. The recession exacerbated this problem, mostly because unemployment rates skyrocketed and then stagnated for years. Sadly, though, many women with jobs still find themselves living in poverty in modern America. Social trends loom large in the constellation of factors impacting poverty as well, and this article examines the twin phenomena of women and children 1) ending up poorer after divorce than men, and 2) living in poverty as single-headed-households much more often than men. I also stress the deleterious effects of domestic violence and its link to the perpetuation of women and children in poverty.

I argue our legal system is equipped to build the scaffolding to facilitate our collective climb up and out. I advocate changes to government policies, and family law reform. Recent changes to federal benefits programs have exacerbated the problem of women and children living in poverty. Welfare reform and “domestic violence” provide a natural segue between the article’s two main sections. Modern family law developments such as no-fault divorce and the attendant decline of alimony are also analyzed.

I propose specific federal legislative and policy reforms. Public perception is woefully misinformed, both on federal spending for benefits, and the extent of female/child poverty. Certain relatively inexpensive spending reforms could significantly reduce poverty. Some programs need increased funding or a restoration to pre-recession funding; some (i.e., minimum wage and welfare reform) are policy questions. Public awareness must be shifted, by politicians and advocates.

My proposed reform is a set of nationalized alimony standards, ending the unpredictable nature of alimony among the states. State legislatures can be lobbied to implement these changes, but the federal government can and should step in to set policy and promote uniformity as it has for child support and for custody jurisdictional matters. With feminine poverty at historic proportions despite a progressive administration ensconced in the White House, legal activists must recognize this moment as ripe for reform and take action.

Suggested Citation

Engle, Jill C., Promoting the General Welfare: Legal Reform to Lift Women and Children in the United States Out of Poverty (February 2013). Journal of Gender, Race and Justice, Vol. 16, 2013, Penn State Law Research Paper No. 40-2013, Available at SSRN:

Jill C. Engle (Contact Author)

The Pennsylvania State University (University Park) – Penn State Law ( email )

Lewis Katz Building
University Park, PA 16802
United States

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