Living in Poverty

Now let’s change the lens a bit.

Quite apart from looking at VA figures, we know that poverty levels are not the same across America, but differ from state to state. Historically, women experience greater poverty than men, decade after decade, so it’s also important to look at gender-specific poverty rates by state, not just use an all-inclusive average for the country (or even the state). So what we’ve needed is a way to figure out which states have higher levels of women living in poverty, and then adjust the estimates accordingly to reflect how many women veterans are likely to be living in poverty in each state.

The percent of women who live below the poverty level in each state. Estimates provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation, using current U.S. Census Bureau data.

Poverty rates for women in the U.S. vary by state from a low of 7 percent (New Hampshire and Maryland) to a high of 23 percent (Mississippi), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which took a look at the non-elderly adult population by gender, using Census estimates from the current population survey (March, 2017).

If we go ahead and use those percentages instead, we can calculate more likely-to-be-realistic estimates for the number of women veterans living in poverty in each state. Keep in mind that these are really the floor not the ceiling for estimates. VA research has separately concluded that women veterans are more than twice as likely as non-veteran women, and over three times as likely as non-veteran women living in poverty to experience homelessness. But it at least gives us somewhere to start, and an opportunity to offset the unrealistically low numbers that emanate from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s annual Point-in-Time count which cannot adequately account for how women veterans experience homelessness.

Calculating a revised estimate for how many women veterans are likely to be living in poverty in a given state, based on that state’s poverty level for women.

By using this revised formula, most estimates change considerably. In a few states, the estimates of how many women veterans may be living in poverty actually go down — Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Hampshire and Utah. Four states stay the same —Hawaii, Minnesota, Nebraska, and New Jersey. But all the rest go up, and some by quite a bit. The estimates for Louisiana, Mississippi and West Virginia, all states with high poverty for women — all at least double. West Virginia’s estimate increases by 230 percent. So now we have a more realistic sense of how many women veterans are likely to be in poverty in each state, which we’ll need for the next piece of this — how many women veterans are likely to be homeless in each state.

Calculating revised estimates for how many women veterans are likely to be homeless (low end and high end of that range both illustrated), based on revised estimates of how many women veterans are likely to be living in poverty in that state.

Homelessness figures

Using VA’s calculation from the research literature that between 13 and 15 percent of women veterans living in poverty are likely to be homeless — and basing that on the new, revised estimate of how many are in poverty per state — we come up with new ranges.

For the top five states by population for women veterans, we can now estimate that:

  • Texas — approximately 24,851 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 3,231 and 3,728 women veterans are homeless.
  • Florida — approximately 20,192 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 2,625 and 3,029 women veterans are homeless.
  • California — approximately 18,617 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 2,420 and 2,793 women veterans are homeless.
  • Virginia — approximately 13,509 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 1,756 and 2,026 women veterans are homeless.
  • Georgia — approximately 13,310 women veterans are living in poverty, and between 1,730 and 1,997 women veterans are homeless.

The same calculations could go ahead be made for every state. The effect of this overall recalculation for the U.S. raises the numbers by about a third — for women veterans living in poverty, and for women veterans living at both the low end and the high end of the range for experiencing homelessness.

Of course, in addition to poverty, other factors increase the risk of a woman veteran becoming homeless. For example, experiencing military sexual trauma increases the risk of homelessness about 400 percent, according to VA estimates. (It increases the risk of homelessness for male veterans as well.)

Why this matters

If you were to answer the question, “How many women veterans are homeless in the U.S. right now,” and you were savvy enough to use VA’s calculation as more precise than HUD’s, the range would be 24,477 to 28,243. By revising the calculations to reflect a more likely view of how many women veterans are living in poverty in each state, we can suggest that the numbers of women veterans who are likely to be homeless, right now, in America are more likely to range between 32,642 and 37,664. Either the VA or the non-VA estimates are far more likely to be the case than HUD’s estimate of 3,571(!) women veterans for 2017, based on the Point in Time count (finding veterans and other homeless who sleep outdoors on one night in late January) and those who move through services intended for the homeless (like shelters) in a year. Previously, we have addressed why women veterans — because of frequent trauma histories and/or their status as single mothers of dependent children — are unlikely to stay in places that the count would find them.

In my ongoing survey of women veterans from every era about experiences of homelessness after military service, more than 3,000 women veterans have described where they are likely to stay and who they are likely to stay with during periods of unstable housing. The top three choices have stayed consistent over two surveys conducted several years apart:

Over the past few years as I’ve taken a look into female veteran homelessness in the U.S., it’s never been clear whether the unrealistically low number that gets all-too-frequently cited is the reason why so few people have paid enough attention to this problem. My guess it’s a contributor, and worth correcting, but on the larger stage, women veterans often mention feeling invisible as veterans — and not just when it comes to this issue. When America thinks about its warrior class, it does still tend to think first and foremost about male veterans. Whether we have Hollywood, the media and/or our own lack of curiosity to thank for this — it’s hard to know where to apportion blame. The more important issue is remembering that women serve, and that when they leave the military, they need responsive services that acknowledge their gender, across the board — from healthcare to homelessness.

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