(Washington, D.C.)  The poverty rate for women rose to 13.9 percent last year, the highest rate in 15 years, according to a National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) analysis of 2009 Census data released today. Over 16.4 million women were living in poverty, including nearly 7 million women in extreme poverty, with incomes below half of the federal poverty line.  Poverty among men also rose in 2009, to 10.5 percent from 9.6 percent in 2008, but remained substantially lower than among women.

For some women, the analysis reveals an even bleaker picture. Poverty rates were substantially higher for women of color, approaching one in four among African-American women (24.6 percent compared to 23.3 percent in 2008); Hispanic women experienced a similar increase from 22.3 percent in 2008 to 23.8 percent last year. Nearly four in ten single mothers (38.5 percent) lived in poverty in 2009, up from 37.2 percent in 2008. More than 15.4 million children lived in poverty last year, a spike of nearly 1.4 million. Over half of poor children lived with single mothers in 2009.

“When over 16 million women are struggling to pull themselves and their families out of poverty, it’s insulting for Congress to consider spending hundreds of billions of dollars to give tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans,” said NWLC Co-President Nancy Duff Campbell. “Congress should focus on measures to create jobs and help hard-pressed families, not millionaires.”

In addition, the wage gap between median earnings for men and women remained as wide as in 2008. Women working full-time, year-round in 2009 were paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts. “The wage gap makes it more difficult for families relying on women’s wages to achieve and maintain economic security,” said NWLC Co-President, Marcia D. Greenberger. “The Senate must pass the Paycheck Fairness Act in the current session to close the wage gap and secure fair pay for women.”

The proportion of all women without health insurance reached a record high in 2009; in 2009 16.6 percent were uninsured compared to 15 percent in 2008. The uninsured rate among women aged 18 to 64 is even more staggering: nearly 1 in 5 women in this group were without coverage in 2009, reflecting a jump from 17.2 million in 2008 to 19.1 million in 2009.  This sharp increase stems from declining rates of private insurance, especially employer-sponsored coverage, as growing numbers of women and families experienced job loss. In 2009, 61.1 percent of women aged 18 to 64 had job-based coverage, compared to 63.8 percent in 2008. The percentage of women with public coverage increased, from 15.8 percent in 2008 to 17 percent in 2009. Even more women would have joined the ranks of the uninsured without the safety net of public health insurance programs such as Medicaid.

“Although these numbers paint a somber picture of insurance coverage, the future is considerably more hopeful due to the new health care law,” said Greenberger. For example, “An estimated 100,000 uninsured women with pre-existing conditions will gain coverage over the next three years through newly available ‘Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plans,’ in every state. And hundreds of thousands of young women, up to age 26, will be able to get coverage through a parent’s plan, starting this month.” By 2014, when the most sweeping health insurance reforms will take effect, there will be an unprecedented expansion of Medicaid and a new federal tax credit to make health insurance more affordable for low- and moderate-income families. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that by 2019, 32 million people will have secured health insurance coverage under the new law.

There was one bright spot: the poverty rate declined for older Americans, including women 65 and older living alone. Poverty among elderly women living alone dropped to 17 percent in 2009 from 18.9 percent in 2008. Without Social Security benefits, 14 million more older Americans would be living in poverty.

“The overall picture from 2009 is grim,” added Campbell, “but there’s a lot that Congress can do now to help women and their families.”

To speak to an NWLC expert and gain deeper insight into the Census data that affect women and their families and their broad implications for public policy, contact Maria Patrick or Andrea Maruniak at 202-588-5180.