The Shriver Report – A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink: Powerful and Powerless
A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink: Powerful and Powerless

Let me state the obvious: I have never lived on the brink. I’ve never been in foreclosure, never applied for food stamps, never had to choose between feeding my children or paying the rent, and never feared I’d lose my paycheck when I had to take time off to care for a sick child or parent. I’m not thrown into crisis mode if I have to pay a parking ticket, or if the rent goes up. If my car breaks down, my life doesn’t descend into chaos.

But the fact is, one in three people in the U.S. do live with this kind of stress, struggle, and anxiety every day. More than 100 million Americans either live near the brink of poverty or churn in and out of it, and nearly 70 percent of them are women and children.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson envisioned the Great Society and called for a War on Poverty, naming my father, Sargent Shriver, the architect of that endeavor. The program worked: Over the next decade, the poverty rate fell by 43 percent.

In those days, the phrase “poverty in America” came with images of poor children in Appalachian shacks and inner-city alleys. Fifty years later, the lines separating the middle class from the working poor and the working poor from those in absolute poverty have blurred. The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid’s hair with one hand and doling out medication to her own aging mother with the other.

For the millions of American women who live this way, the dream of “having it all” has morphed into “just hanging on.” Everywhere they look, every magazine cover and talk show and website tells them women are supposed to be feeling more “empowered” than ever, but they don’t feel empowered. They feel exhausted.

Many of these women feel they are just a single incident—one broken bone, one broken-down car, one missed paycheck—away from the brink. And they’re not crazy to feel that way:

  • Women are nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country.
  • More than 70 percent of low-wage workers get no paid sick days at all.
  • 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income.
  • The median earnings of full-time female workers are still just 77 percent of the median earnings of their male counterparts.

This is the first post-recession recovery since 1970 in which women have continued to lose jobs while men have gained more than 1.1 million jobs.

For this year’s Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, we polled more than 3,000 adults to determine how Americans feel about the economy, gender, marriage, education, and the future. Here are some highlights from the poll respondents who are low-income women:

  • 75 percent of them wish they had put a higher priority on their education and career, compared to 58 percent of the general population.
  • 73 percent wish they had made better financial choices (as did 65 percent of all those we polled).
  • They were less likely to be married (37 percent, compared to 49 percent of all the men and women we polled).
  • Only 30 percent of those with children wished they had delayed having kids or had fewer of them.

What’s more, the opinion of the general public is on their side. 73 percent of Americans said that in order to raise the incomes of working women and families, the government should ensure that women get equal pay for equal work. 78 percent of Americans said the government should expand access to high-quality, affordable childcare for working families.

Almost 60 percent of Americans said women raising children on their own face tremendous challenges and should be helped financially by government, employers, and communities.

The typical American family isn’t what it used to be. Only a fifth of our families have a male breadwinner and a female homemaker. The solutions we need today are also different. We don’t need a new New Deal, because the New Deal was an all-government solution, and that’s not enough anymore. And my father’s War on Poverty isn’t enough anymore either.

Women have enormous power. Politicians knock themselves out wooing us because we’re a majority of voters in this country. Every corporate marketer and advertiser is after us because we make as much as 70 percent of this country’s consumer decisions and more than 80 percent of the healthcare decisions.

We must recognize that our government programs, business practices, educational system, and media messages don’t take into account a fundamental truth: This nation cannot have sustained economic prosperity and well-being until women’s new, central role is recognized and women’s economic health is used as a measure—perhaps it should be the measure—to shape common-sense policies and priorities for the 21st century.

In other words, leave out the women, and you don’t have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do. It’s that simple, and Americans know it.

We women can exert real pressure on our government to change course on many of the issues we care about and deliver on what women need now to rise up from the brink. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that the United States is the only industrialized nation without mandatory paid maternity leave?

And how about those of us who aren’t in jeopardy? Do we pay the women we hire a living wage to help them with childcare and elder care—not because it’s the law, but because it’s fair? Do we give them flexibility when they need to take time for caregiving? If we run businesses, do we educate our workers about public policies and programs that can help them?

But the truth is that for so long, America’s women have been divided: women who are mothers versus women who are not, women who work at home versus women who work outside the home, those who are married versus those who aren’t, pro- life women versus pro-choice, white women versus women of color, Democrat versus Republican, gay versus straight, and young versus old. It feels like the last issue where women came together was fighting for a woman’s right to vote! The Shriver Report offers the blueprint for a new way forward.

We Americans, both women and men, have the power to count them in. By pushing back and by putting into practice the solutions we’re proposing in The Shriver Report, we can re-ignite the American Dream. What has to change? We have to change, and we can. We are A Woman’s Nation, and it’s time to Push Back from the Brink.

This piece is an excerpt from The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink in partnership with Center for America Progress. Beginning January 12th, you can download a full version of the report at  Sign up for our newsletter and we will send you a reminder when the report is available. 

Maria Shriver is a mother of four, a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning journalist and producer, a six-time New York Times best-selling author, and an NBC News Special Anchor covering the shifting roles, emerging power and evolving needs of women in modern life. Since 2009, Shriver has produced a groundbreaking series of Shriver Reports that chronicle and explore seismic shifts in the American culture and society affecting women today.
Also from Maria Shriver:
The Shriver Report aims to ignite conversations about our modern realities, however comments that are obscene, sexually explicit or include hate speech will be removed.
  • Wanda

    Powerful vs Powerless ~ I don’t think it is as simple as women have taken over as both Mom and Dad. Nor is it we don’t get paid the same as men.Nor is it we are the primary caregivers of our parents. The reality is that we are stymied by those things, but also we are purposely divided by morality beliefs, religion and oppportunity. The article does not reflect the “real” issues. The ones in the deep inner core of the things. Men and some women are trying to dictate what the poor, poverty stricken and just plain tired women are going to do. Prime example; Healthcare is not available for every person. In Florida, the State decided they weren’t going to let their citizens get Affordable Healthcare. Instead, if you need healthcare good luck. In my case, I have Medicare, There is a monthly bill I need to pay Medicare, then IF I can get any medicaid help I have to pay out of my pocket $850.00 per month. Once that is done they will cover some, not most care I need. I am not 65 so I can not get a supplemental plan and I couldn’t afford it anyway. Just recently I have Cancer removed from my face. About and 1/8 of my face was full of Cancer. The surgeon is nice enough to wait for his payments for four surgeries and about 10 f/u visits. But I need a Plastic Surgeon and guess what? I have to pay my 40% of the procedure before I can be fixed. But this is an example of stories I could tell all night of women having to choose to eat, pay rent or get life saving medical care. This is all connected to the inadequacies of our Government failing to ensure women are paid equally, free from harrassment, given opportunity to have safe childcare, ability to pay medical and still keep a good roof over their heads and still buy food, clothes etc. I see this issue going deeper and being perpetuated by religious factions, male dominated politics and the ideology that women are just lazy..

  • Jacqueline A. Kelly

    Wanda, I am so sorry for what you are going through and congratulations on having the cancer removed. There are so many issues that compound your situation. Your face has been scarred and until you can obtain plastic surgery, you are not wholly accepted by our appearance-based society. On top of this, you are 65, so you also deal with age-ism. To add further insult to injury, the mere fact that you are not in the middle class or even lower middle class, you are further scorned, even by your own “kind”. And God-forbid, but what if you were actually job-hunting? Ms. Shriver’s thought-provoking article touches on the fact that American women are divided, but I think it goes much deeper than that. Aside from personal and political beliefs and agendas, women can be flat-out competitive and harmful toward each other. I never fully realized this until the past 10 years since my divorce, when I was demoted, with my children, from the American Dream to the American Reality. Until then, I looked at the world through rose-colored glasses, believing that with hard work and perseverance, we can do anything. Now I realize this is not necessarily true, and that in addition to the reasons that you pointed out, we are also harshly judged every day. By our age, our height and weight, our cultural and/or ethnic backgrounds, our sexual orientation, our education, or lack thereof, our socioeconomic stratification, and even by how good-looking our husband or boyfriend or significant other may be. Somewhere in our culture what matters has gotten lost. Moment-to-moment Humanity. Not the kind that sounds good or looks good, the kind that makes a difference. I think Ms. Shriver is truly on the way to leading us back from the brink, one woman at a time. It’s our time now.

  • Sue Chynoweth

    I downloaded the report, but I wish I would be able to see the documentary, also. Why was the choice made to air it on HBO, instead of on PBS, which would make it available for everyone to view?

    • Pattie Eckerle

      I don’t have HBO but Paycheck to Paycheck was offered free on the internet so I was fortunate enough to see it.

  • Desirey Killjoy Howard

    Focus more on education, self-improvement, knowing yourself and knowing your goals in life and making as well as reaching those goals will help aiding in making women feel a stronger sense of themselves. Education is the most important and most powerful thing anyone can ever have. It separates people into different classes, but if someone in a lower class can keep their goals and focus more on education than being a mother and putting education before anything else in life, they can become as strong as they like. As for me, I’m a college graduate in middle class who is disabled and focuses mainly on my education and self and at the age of 25 and seeing other women my same age having children, unmarried with nowhere to go living from paycheck to paycheck encourages me to not become another statisic

  • Namaimo

    It is a powerful message from Maria Shriver using her podium to speak out. Thank you, Ms. Shriver. The good Kennedy dynasty lives on.

  • weiners


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