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Women hardest hit by poverty, study says

The good news is that the number of Americans living in poverty has declined since 1960 from 35 percent to 25 percent of the total population. Here's the bad news:

While men (primarily white) are managing to ''win the war'' against poverty, women are being harder hit than ever. Increasingly, female-headed families are bearing the brunt of the burden.

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So says a 1980 report of the National Advisory Council on Economic Opportunity, which studied the sex, age, and race of the poverty population in the United States and how it's changed over the past two decades.

In a speech before the Conoco Women's Forum in Washington, D.C., the president of the League of Women Voters, Ruth Hinerfeld, addressed the same topic. She cited three major causes of female poverty: the great increase in the number of single-parent households headed by women, the limited earnings of women, and the growing ranks of the elderly.

This last cause - increases in the number of older Americans - should be a ''cause for celebrating improvements in the quality of life that have contributed to a lengthening life span,'' Mrs. Hinerfeld says. ''Not to be celebrated, however, is the fact that the economic quality of life over 65 is far better for men than for women.''

She cites these statistics: ''Forty percent of nonmarried women over 65 are poor, compared with 25 percent of elderly, nonmarried men. And 75 percent of the beneficiaries of social security minimum benefits of $122 a month are women.''

Most vulnerable are the displaced homemakers - women who are widowed or divorced late in life, and left without the skills to support themselves in a society reluctant to hire older women. Efforts at pension reform, which in some cases allot funds to divorced spouses on the basis of years of marriage, are aimed directly at this group.

The other single largest group of poor women is the rapidly increasing number of female heads of household. ''What usually happens after a divorce, it's fair to say, is that the man becomes single, and the woman becomes a single parent,'' said Mrs. Hinerfeld.

According to the advisory council's report, nearly 81/2 million households are now headed by females; between 100,000 and 150,000 new such households have been added each year for the past decade because of the high divorce rate. One out of every three of these families live in poverty, as opposed to 1 in 18 male-headed households.

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Diana Pearce, a co-author of the council's report who coined the phrase ''feminization of poverty,'' thinks young mothers are hardest hit by this emerging trend. Sixty percent of women heads of household between the ages of 16 and 24 are poor, ''and they are likely to be without a high school degree or job training, and home with a young child,'' she says. ''Over half (54.6 percent) of those on welfare have a child under the age of six at home,''

''To get out, these women must have access to inexpensive day care,'' a commodity that ''simply doesn't exist for most of them,'' she says.

Exacerbating these figures are the low wages received by the 60 percent of female heads of families who are working outside the home. As Mrs. Hinerfeld puts it, ''Many women cannot support themselves and their families, even when they have a full-time job, because their salaries are so low.''

One bright spot in the employment profile is the number of women in higher-salaried skilled trades, which has increased 80 percent in the last decade.

Mrs. Hinerfeld calls for increased training programs of the type ''that enable women to earn enough to support their families.''

Some innovative training programs, targeted specifically at poor women, have been successfully carried out under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), scheduled to end this September.

Congress is presently considering various proposals to reinstate the vocational education aspect of CETA, Ms. Reder says, but the funding is ''nothing like what is needed in a high-unemployment market.'

Mrs. Hinerfeld sees the basic problem as one of educating legislators and the public: ''If the causes of women's poverty are understood, and programs designed to meet their specific needs, it is possible to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

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