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Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Volume 15, Issue 1
Spring/Summer 2017

Identifying Barriers to Economic Self-Sufficiency:
A Study of Women in Western North Carolina*


Cameron Lippard

Appalachian State University


Elizabeth Thomas

Tulane University


     Historically, women in the United States have faced higher levels of economic hardship than men. According to the U.S. Census (2010), poverty levels among women ages 18 to 64 in the U.S. are higher than men, with 15.5 percent of women in poverty compared to 11.8 percent of men. In 2011, women earned approximately 80 cents to every dollar a man earned (National Committee on Pay Equity 2013). On a local level, this story is the same. In the "High Country" (Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties) of North Carolina, poverty levels for women eighteen years of age and older are 15.6 percent, 17.5 percent, and 20.9 percent, respectively (US Census 2010).

     Scholars have argued that women face significant economic disadvantages, many of which can be linked to the "feminization of poverty". This phenomena states that women face significant barriers to becoming economically self-sufficient or independent (Pressman 2003). These impediments include low educational attainments and incomes, lack of familial support, number of children in the household, as well as lack of access to stable employment, affordable housing, and good health care (Edin 1995).

     After being approached by local agencies to develop an assessment of women's economic issues in the area, this research-based community project focused on the following research question: what are the barriers to economic self-sufficiency for women living in the High Country? We defined economic self-sufficiency as the ability of individuals or families to meet their needs with minimal or no financial assistance from private or public organizations (Pearce 2012). Variables used to construct our measurement of economic self-sufficiency included employment stability, housing, educational achievements, number of financial dependents, affordable health care, reliable child care, permanent transportation, disability status, self-esteem, and relationship status.

     For the purpose of this research, both quantitative and qualitative data were utilized. First, we used surveys to collect economic and demographic data from women living in Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties. Second, we conducted two focus groups that allowed respondents to express their views about the barriers they believed to be restricting them from becoming economically independent. Our sample included 103 women who lived in Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties, although the majority was from Watauga County, North Carolina.

     Results of this project reflected the fact that economic self-sufficiency is a complex issue and goal. First, we found that no women in our sample had complete economic independence. Second, the data collected suggested four influential barriers to economic self-sufficiency including reliable transportation, affordable housing, access to mental health care, and higher self-esteem. While respondents believed that these four barriers had the greatest impact on their economic self-sufficiency, focus group results suggested many such factors work in tandem to restrain women from reaching economic independence.

Context Matters:
Economic Insecurity in the High Country

     Economic opportunities for any resident in western North Carolina are constrained foremost by historically persistent economic insecurity. Residents in the counties under investigation (Ashe, Avery, and Watauga) reside in southern Appalachia or the "High Country" of North Carolina, which has been economically struggled for decades. This area has struggled with providing enough employment opportunities, strong wages to combat high costs of living, adequate affordable housing, and transportation systems due to extremely variable costs of living (Black et al., 2007). The Appalachian Regional Commission (2013) identified all three counties in this study as either economically "at-risk" or "transitional" for having some of the worst unemployment rates, per capita market incomes, and poverty rates in the United States.

     Some of this economic insecurity is due to few job opportunities that offer a wage comparable to the cost of living or living income standard. For example, less than 22 percent of the available jobs in the identified counties pay over the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (NC Division of Employment Security 2013). Of those available positions that paid more than minimum wage, less than five percent provide an income that could support a family of four. The living income standards recently calculated for the area require a wage of at least $23 an hour to support this type of family (Sirota and McLenaghan 2010).
     In 2010, researchers developed a "Living Income Standard" (LIS) for North Carolina, which utilized market prices for seven necessary expenses to calculate a more precise measurement of wages needed to live across the 100 counties of North Carolina (Sirota and McLenaghan 2010). These seven expenses included housing, food, childcare, health care, transportation, other necessities and taxes in relation to each city or county in the state.  In the past, the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) has been used as the standard for gauging poverty levels in a given region.  However, the FPL has not been adequate in explaining why some families which were above the "poverty threshold" still struggled to make ends meet.  One of the reasons for this is that the FPL was largely based on food costs and assumed that food consumes one-third of a family's expenses; today, food accounts for a much smaller portion of annual earnings (Sirota and McLenaghan 2010).  In addition, the FPL incorporated predetermined living costs within their model, although housing costs varied largely by geographic location.

     The LIS study produced figures that suggested that most families with two adults and two children living in North Carolina needed to earn at least $23.47 per hour, which is 221 percent higher than the federal poverty level and 324 percent higher than the minimum wage. The results also suggested that women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and immigrants were disproportionately more likely to live in families which fell below the LIS measurement (Sirota and McLenaghan 2010).  In addition to this, 60 percent of the adults in those families were employed full-time while still falling short of the NC Living Income Standard within the three counties we examined.

     For a two-person family (one adult and one child) annual LIS income levels in Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties should have been $32,657, $34,704, and $37,739, respectively (Sirota and McLenaghan 2010). In a five-person family (two adults and three children), the annual LIS budget for three counties should have been $56,442, $56,834, and $60,040. These income levels were double or triple the actual income levels reported by the U.S. Census in 2010 (see Table 1 below). In addition, based on the LIS measurement, wages in all three counties needed to be about 200 percent more than reported, regardless of family size. While average wages in these counties rested around $10 an hour, costs of housing, food, childcare, and other measured items required an average wage of $23 an hour. In short, over 65 percent of families in these counties had incomes that were much less than what was necessary to economically survive, regardless of family size or composition. 

     The labor market is problematic and unreliable in these areas. When looking at available jobs in today's market, only two percent of jobs that paid an income which was suitable to address the living income standard suggested above required at least a post-graduate education (i.e., Ph.D., J.D.) and/or five to eight years of experience (NC Division of Employment Security 2013). As suggested by the skills mismatch hypothesis (Handel 2003), the education and skills of the labor pool in western North Carolina may not match the needed qualifications for those jobs which pay more, particularly since only about six percent of these counties' populations have a professional or post-graduate degree.

     In 2013, the labor market and job opportunities came from three industries or sectors of employment in the area: government-public, retail, and service sectors (NC Division of Employment Security 2013). Appalachian State University, a public university enrolling 16,000 students and hiring over 3,700 people was the largest employer of the three counties. The next largest employers were other North Carolina government services, including the Department of Transportation and Social Services. As for retail, most jobs rested in part-time work in fast food restaurants and shopping.

     However, one of the largest industries that provided employment was the service or "tourist" industry in the area. Specifically, the Appalachian Regional Commission (2007) report noted that tourism has become the biggest non-government industry in central and southern Appalachia. This is true for western North Carolina where outdoor activities (camping, skiing, and hiking), the Blue Ridge Parkway, fall festivals, and blue grass music bring millions of tourists to the "High Country." In 2012, tourism to Watauga County generated over $210 million (NC Division of Tourism 2013). However, over 64 percent of the employment opportunities offered by this industry are part-time, seasonal work with just above average wages ($8.25 an hour) (NC Division of Employment Security 2013). Overall, the labor markets in 2013 do little to provide economic opportunities for many individuals and families to escape the poverty that has plagued this area.
Economic Realities for Women in the High Country

     Women's economic situations in Ashe, Avery, and Watauga County are bleak. For example, Table 1 below presents median household income, cost of living, unemployment rate, relationship status, labor force participation rate, education level, home ownership rate from 2007-2011, and the poverty rate for all individuals in the three counties. Since the research question focused on barriers for women in the high country, Table 2 also presents the variables subdivided by sex (female and male). Statistical information representing "females only" is not available for every variable, therefore, Table 2 contains a smaller amount of variables than Table 1.

Table 1: Characteristics of Population U.s. and the High Country


















































































































Table 2: High Country Characteristics (women and Men Comparisons over Each County)





Median earnings for full-time year round












poverty level for women 18 and over

















































    According to the US Census (2010), the median household earnings for full-time employed women in the mountain counties of Ashe, Avery and Watauga were $27,713, $28,371 and $31,885, respectively. In each of these counties, incomes for men were higher than incomes for women.  On average, men in Ashe and Avery counties made an estimated $5,500 more per year while men in Watauga County made $6,200 more than full time employed women (US Census, 2010).

     The cost of living in each county differed by family composition, number of children, and geographic location. For the purposes of this study, the estimates for a household with two adults and two children were used in Table 1.  The variables compiled in the estimate include housing, childcare, transportation, food, health care, and other necessities in respect to each county examined.

     Labor force participation was represented for all individuals in each presented county and not specifically by sex. For all three counties, a range of 50 to 60 percent of the total population was employed. Thirty-five to fifty percent of the total population within each county was considered unemployed.

     Poverty levels for each county revealed similar trends when comparing two-adult households to single, female-headed households. Less than ten percent of two-adult households lived below the poverty level within each of the three counties. In comparison, thirty-six to forty-three percent of households that were female-headed with no spouse present lived below the poverty level. An even more drastic comparison was evident between female-headed households and female-headed household that have related children under five years old. Seventy-three to ninety-three percent of female-headed households with related children under five years old lived below the poverty level in Ashe, Avery, and Watauga counties.

The Feminization of Poverty and Continuing Barriers

     As first identified by Pearce (1978), the "feminization of poverty" thesis noted that women faced higher levels of poverty than men in the United States because of a wage gap and increasing female-headed households with children (see also Bianchi 1999; McLanahan, Sørenson, and Watson 1989; Peterson 1987; Pressman 2003; Reskin and Padavic 2002; Thibos, Lavin-Loucks and Martin 2007) Although some researchers have suggested that there have been significant improvements in economic conditions since the 1970s for American women (see Bianchi 1999), there are still a number of factors that complicate the possibilities of women becoming economically independent. A review of current research focusing on women's poor economic conditions suggests six main barriers to economic stability: education, income or wage levels, children and single parent households, family ties, affordable housing, and affordable and accessible health care.

Education and the Wage Gap

     According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 findings, women 25 and older were more likely than men of the same age to have completed at least high school and earned a college degree (Crissey et al. 2013).  Human capital theory implies that investment in health, job training and education promises higher future market returns. This theory shows that education not only improves math, verbal, and cognitive skills but also contributes to one's values, behaviors, and attitudes (Pandey et al. 2006, 2008).  Commonly, employees with more years of education are more sought after and given higher salaries and benefits. Thus, the higher level of education one completes should result in a higher level of economic self-sufficiency.

     Despite advances in educational attainment for women, some studies have shown that women's views on whether they see themselves as economically self-sufficient were unrelated to their employment status, income levels, job history, education, race, age, or family size (Gowdy and Peralmutter 1993). Research has also shown that less than 10 percent of mothers with a bachelor's degree live below the poverty line, compared to over 50 percent for those without a high school diploma (Pandey et al. 2006). Poverty among married women without a high school degree was 20 percent above their counterparts who had bachelor's degrees.  Women without postsecondary education worked jobs that paid lower wages and provided fewer services than they received when on welfare (Pandey et al. 2006). Interesting to note, the odds of living above the poverty line for single mothers with some college is three times those with a bachelor's degree and nine times the odds for those without a high school degree. Also, educated women tend to marry educated men, and upon divorce or becoming widows, they tend to receive more financial resources from their marriage in the form of child support, alimony and assets compared to their less educated counterparts (Pandey et al. 2006, 2008).

     As stated earlier, more women are receiving bachelor's degrees than men but the amount of low-income women and single mothers going to college has declined since the 1996 welfare reform and the later 2005 Deficit Reduction Act (Pandey et al. 2008).  With continued emphasis on welfare to work, more women have been in need of their four-year degree to secure jobs which provided economic security.  This has shown that educational status continues to be positively related to economic status with both married and single mothers (Pandey et al. 2006).

    Across the board, women continue to have lower wages than men. As of 2013, women on average make 80 cents to every dollar a man makes. Reskin and Padavic (1994) have argued that these wage differences have been due to a number of factors. First, there is a "sexual division of labor" which tracks women into "pink collar" occupations that offer low wages and require less skill than other occupations.  Tasks such as working with children or customers are thought to be appropriate to women's gender roles, which are given a lower status and are thus, paid less. These jobs also typically reflect the work that women perform in the home, such as cleaning and cooking. This traps women in poverty because the kind of jobs they can get do not pay well; thereby making it nearly impossible for them to rise out of poverty.

     The gender roles that our society enforces also contribute to the feminization of poverty. Men are socialized to be competitive, rational, and dominating, all of which are characteristics valued by a capitalistic society. Women are seen as irrational and emotional, which allows for capitalists to look down on women and make them dependent on men (Hartmann 1984). These gender roles also support the gender ideology of Western society's culture. Western society tends to believe that women are supposed to be dependent on men, that women have fewer needs than men, and that women's work is not as valuable as men's (Reskin and Padavic 2002).

     Second, the discrepancy that we see in wages between men and women is also due to the "glass ceiling" that curbs many women's careers. By definition, the glass ceiling consists of obstacles that women face along the journey to gaining a higher position in an organization or career (Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner 2006). This is accomplished in both covert and overt ways. For example, because the majority of managers within organizations are male, females may not be as connected with their social networks and therefore, have less of a chance at making an impression for possible advancement. It is also common for people to hire others whom they are comfortable working with. Men may be more comfortable working with other men, instead of women, which would subconsciously influence a male manager's decision when promoting new managers (Abercrombie et al. 2006). Due to these restrictions impacting women, no matter how hard they work or achieve set-out goals in their jobs, they are overcome by men blocking their access to higher positions that offer better pay.

     Finally, while women and men find themselves in very different occupations, being paid very different wages, economic forces are strong predictors of opening and closing job opportunities, both nationally and locally. Williams (1992) argued that while women do face pay- and advance-issues in most occupations, some occupations arise over time that advance women and skirt around gender issues of wage inequalities. For example, by the 1970s jobs in manufacturing, which were traditionally the best-paying option for low income, unskilled, and uneducated women, have been moved overseas to developing countries that have less governmental regulation. Therefore, this relocation of manufacturing and industry type jobs for women has forced them into service industries, teaching, and various other occupations that pay at or slightly above the legal minimum wage (McCall 2000). However, as Bianchi (1999) points out, there are some occupations in which women have earned good wages in comparison to men, such as nursing, due to the demands of the health industry. But, again this profession is largely woman-dominated, and even when men enter it, they are often pushed into administrative positions quickly, a concept referred to as the "glass escalator" (Reskin and Padavic 2002; Williams 1992). In short, researchers have to look at local labor market context as well as macro-level economic shifts to better understand women and the wage gaps they face.

Female-Headed Households with Children

     As noted first by Pearce (1978), the increase in female-headed households has increased levels of poverty for women (see also McLanahan et al. 1989; Edin 1995). In 2009, while women accounted for 59 percent of the American workforce, female-headed households also represented 25 percent of all families with children (U.S. Census 2010). Women who are single parents face a paradox. As Edin (1995) suggests, society pushes women to be the primary caregivers but they cannot earn enough money to support their children. In addition, if they cannot obtain a job that pays a living wage, then these single mothers will often turn to the American welfare system for help with paying bills and providing sufficient care for their children (Edin 1995).

     Continuing this paradox is the fact that research finds that child care and lack of child support are two large barriers to economic self-sufficiency for single mothers, beyond wage disparities. Research shows that more policies implementing child care and short-term leaves would correlate with a decrease in poverty among single mothers (Misra, Moller, and Budig 2007). In addition, evidence suggests that within rural areas, mothers will face challenges in finding affordable and reliable childcare (Simmons, Dolan, and Braun 2007). Watauga County is considered a rural area and this challenge is evident in its female population.

     Childcare, healthcare, and housing account for 60 percent of a family's monthly expenses, with childcare being the single largest expense (Quinterno, Gray, and Schofield 2008). The monthly living income standard budget for childcare is around $411 a month, for a four-person family, in non-metropolitan areas. Childcare usually comes out to one quarter of a family's monthly spending (Quinterno et al. 2008). Childcare can cause significant financial stress, particularly when more than one child is in the household, as well as single mothers do not get the child support they need and that this can cause them to rely on the welfare system (Edin 1995). Many single mothers rely on welfare simply because they cannot afford childcare (Edin 1995). Thus, childcare and its affordability further compounds the economic problem women face in America.

Housing and Health Care

     One obstacle that poor families face in Appalachia is the lack of affordable housing. This is especially true in areas with high job growth (Mather 2004). It seems that people who rent their home rather than own their home have higher burdens in regards to housing. This is usually due to renters typically having a lower income than people who own their home (Mather 2004). In Watauga County, it is particularly difficult to find affordable housing.  Because of the university in Boone, the lack of affordable housing, and tourism in the area, it is extremely hard to live affordably in Watauga County (Jenkins 2008). When looking at women who do receive housing assistance and those who do not, we find that women who do receive housing assistance are no more likely to encounter barriers to employment and self-sufficiency than unassisted women (Corcoran and Heflin 2003). Therefore, there is a weak relationship between housing assistance and work outcomes (Corcoran and Heflin 2003). Research shows that when measuring housing quality based on the key aspects of plumbing adequacy, vacancy rates, home values, and access to vehicles and telephones, Appalachia continues to fall behind the rest of the United States (Mather 2004).

    One of the most financially crippling hurdles to self-sufficiency women face today is the barrier to accessible and affordable health care, both for themselves, as for any other dependents they support. Whether their inability to maintain steady care is due to rising medical costs, lack of health insurance, or other reasons, women are directly affected by their health concerns (Roxburgh 2009; Samuel et al. 2012). Being able to hold down a steady job requires a greater sense of physical well-being and can even be directly related to whether or not one has a common cold (Geronimus et al, 2006; Kaplan 2005; Leukefeld 2012). Through recent changes to our nation's health care laws, females have a wider set of options.

    Alterations such as the ban on annual and lifetime limits on benefits, the disappearance of co-pays for preventative screenings (i.e. pap smears and mammograms), and well-child visits allow individuals to get the maximum coverage out of their health policies without being denied services or worrying about costs (NCSL 2013). However, Americans have yet to learn about how these benefits work and will still cost individuals significant amounts for health services that are not covered. Although options for the uninsured and unemployed are growing, the rising costs of plausible policies for them often prevents their attainment. In recent studies performed in 2011, the average health care costs of a family of four soared upwards of $16,000, with the family paying nearly $5,000, on average, of that out of pocket. For an individual, however, insurance coverage was estimated at $5,614 requiring nearly $1,000 of that to be paid by the individual (NCSL 2013). With no sign of a decrease in costs, it is apparent why women often suffer at the hands of their own health and struggle to find affordable options to care for their children.

Family Ties

     A final obstacle facing women and their inability to refer to themselves as economically self-sufficient is the concept of family ties. In recent years, studies have been conducted targeting the idea of two income families. Many women are often looked down upon for being single mothers, or merely women without a partner; however, as Warren and Tyagi (2003) have discovered, they may be the ones with the advantage. A large part of our society has been lead to believe that a combined two-person income will resolve bills or debts and provide other types of support that sometimes comes at an expense (Misra et al. 2007).

     Sudden loss of a job, the appearance of serious medical problems, and divorce are three of the highest indicators for bankruptcy; however, the presence of children is one of the leading predictors of the financial suicide of women (Warren and Tyagi 2003).  Once considered a benefit of family life, women are increasingly considering not having children, or at least fewer of them. Sociologists have supported the idea that a lack of children paired with having a wage earning partner had a significant and positive impact on the economic self-sufficiency spectrum (Edin 1995; Simmons et al. 2007; Warren and Tyagi 2003).


     To examine the barriers to economic self-sufficiency of the women in the "High Country," specifically in Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties, we drew upon quantitative and qualitative data collected from a community-campus partnership conducted between January and May of 2013. Our partnership included local agencies aimed at providing services for women and children throughout our target population who face economic deficiencies. As a research team, our goal was to further the agencies' understandings of the local women by asking questions about their social demographics, their educational history, and their opinions about the adequacy of services provided to them in these three counties. Throughout this partnership we conducted several planning meetings, and decided to use a mixed-method approach relying on surveys and focus groups. We, as well as the community partner, felt that these methods were the best way for subjects to voice their thoughts and opinions on the issue, particularly since the agency partners noted issues with literacy.

     Initially, with the help of the community partner, we designed a thirty-question survey that was distributed to the participating agencies including closed and open-ended questions crafted by our research team and participating agencies. Included within the survey were questions regarding age, relationship status, employment, housing, education attainment and income; we also inquired about the current utilization of medical services and various agencies or programs being used by the participants throughout the counties (available by request).  Upon completion of the survey, it was submitted for review with the participating agencies and approved for use. We considered the potential literacy issues and decided that the survey could be administered three ways: in person by a research assistant, online through a secure server offered by the university, or self-administered in hard copy form. We asked all participants for no identifying information to make it anonymous to us, as well as the partnering agency. Once a week, members of the research group visited the agencies to conduct and collect completed copies of the survey. The total number of surveys collected was 103.

     Beyond the surveys, two separate focus groups were conducted to allow participants to express in-depth views on the barriers they face and how those are associated with achieving economic self-sufficiency. Each focus group involved eight to ten participants who were residents of Avery and Watauga Counties, totaling 19 participants. Three to four female facilitators were present during each focus group, and each focus group lasted approximately sixty to ninety minutes. The focus groups were also digitally recorded for further data analysis.

     All research members were trained and certified through the Institutional Review Board at the corresponding university, as well as trained on various data collection methods throughout the research process. All participants were assured they would receive total anonymity and confidentiality during the survey process, as well as their participation in the focus groups, by not attaching names or identifying information to their responses. Furthermore, it was also made clear to all individuals that by volunteering for this research their participation could potentially lead to more funding to further aid women in future, similar situations.

     Following the research, all quantitative data was cataloged into the statistical software package SPSS. All qualitative coding was performed through qualitative content analysis of the survey results. Descriptive as well as inferential statistics were used to further analyze our data and shape it into a more understandable and relatable data bank.  Three types of analysis were conducted to describe the data; descriptive, bivariate, and multivariate analysis.  First, when conducting the descriptive analysis, the data was entered into SPSS, and by looking at the percentages of comparative variables, a descriptive explanation was created to examine the most important barriers to economic self-sufficiency.  Second, a bivariate analysis was conducted in order to compare the independent variables and to create an economic sufficiency variable based on several barrier indicators (see results section).  Finally, these indicators were combined into an overall score that categorized the respondents into 4 categories (see results section) and gave them an economic self-sufficiency score between 0 and 100. 


     This study focuses on three counties that are part of what is defined as "The High Country." The counties included are Ashe, Avery and primarily Watauga. The majority of the respondents (84 percent) resided in Watauga County with Avery County being the second-most represented at 11 percent. For the overall sample, respondents' ages ranged from 18 to 80 with a mean of 40 years old. The most common age range of 19 – 30 years old described 27.2 percent of the sample. The sample was 97% white with only three respondents identifying as Black or African American. Of the respondents, only 35 percent were married and another 25 percent were single. However, it should be noted that around 13 percent were in at least a "steady relationship." Majority of women had children, with most having between one and three children. As for education, only a few had less than a high school diploma and about 21 percent had some college education but had not completed a degree.

     One important finding was that nearly half (49.5 percent) of the women were unemployed. This is later reflected when most women state that the largest barrier for them was stable employment (see discussion). The monthly income for our study ranged from $0 per month to $4600, although the high income earners were certainly outliers since the mean and median income was $985.65 and $730 per month, respectively. Housing costs ranged from $0 and $1800 per month with an average of cost at $601.13 per month. Most of the women in our study owned their own vehicle (61.2 percent), but a large number still used public transportation (21.4 percent). Most women rented their housing (41.7 percent) while 30.1 percent owned. This left a large percentage (27.2 percent) of women to be either homeless or using agency provided housing.






































No Children



1 child



2 Children



3 children



4 or more





























































































































Economic Self-Sufficiency Measurement (ESS)

     The measurement of self-sufficiency was a required element that the partnering agency wanted to produce to be able to share with other agencies working with women. Based on the literature reviewed above and conversations with the partnering agency, we created this economic self-sufficiency index (ESS) in which we assigned a point value to each response option where the most possible points earned by any respondent was one hundred; one hundred signifying the highest level of self-sufficiency where all basic needs were met and zero indicated a complete lack of economic self-sufficiency. Two of the questions were based on a twenty-point scale measuring the respondents' personal perception of their level of ESS due to its prominence in the literature on self-sufficiency and the agency's insistence that these represented important cues of self-reliance and economic stability due to their experiences (see Table 4). The remaining six received a total of ten points each. The questions about financial stability and being able to pay one's bills were given a higher point scale because these questions addressed women's perceptions of ESS, which we found to be pertinent to their actual achievement of ESS. The six other questions were also important but did not address women's personal perception of ESS, thus these questions were given a lower point scale, where ten was the maximum. Using statistical processing software we added the sums of these freshly-coded variables and arrived at our new ESS measurement.

     The scores can be further divided into four categories. These definitions capture the majority of respondents in each category but there is some overlap (see Table 4):

Safe (76 - 100 pts): Most or all basic needs met. Sufficient income and/or subsidies to take care of bills and any other needs are well met by community services. Although these women have a stable income, they do not have enough savings to cover 3 months of expenses.

At Risk (51 - 75 pts): Most have all but one or two needs met. Some might need more reliable transportation or childcare or they sometimes must use more services to cover gaps in an unreliable job. Because of this they sometimes struggle to pay their bills.

Struggling (26 - 50 pts): Women in this category have either many small problems, such as no health insurance or unreliable childcare, or one large problem, such as major health complications or homelessness. They are heavily reliant on community and federal services, which often don't fully satisfy their needs. Their income is not sufficient and they often cannot pay their bills.

Crisis (0 - 25 pts): Women in this category have multiple, significant problems and they are often unemployed and homeless, sometimes with children. They are almost completely reliant on federal and community services and can never pay all of their bills. Many times children compound these issues.

Table 4: ESS Score matrix



10 max






10 max

Not completed high school


Completed high school or GED


Professional certificate or some college


Associates, bachelors, or higher degree



10 max






10 max

$0 - $10,000


$10,001 - $20,000


$20,001 - $30,000


$30,001 and above



10 max

No personal transportation


Personal transportation


Mental Issues

10 max

Mental issues present a large problem


Mental issues present a problem


Mental issues do not present a problem


Financial Stability

20 max

Extreme financial instability


Struggling to make ends meet


Steady paycheck but need more affordable options


Good financial stability


Paying Bills

20 max

Can never pay bills


Can sometimes pay bills


Can pay bills most of the time


Can pay bills all of the time


Total Possible Points



    The scores of respondents in this survey ranged from six to ninety posing a wide representation of what each individual's score indicated. Out of 87 respondents, 19.5 percent fell into the lowest category of 25 points or less (see Figure 2). These women were more likely to have one or more children and face challenges acquiring secure living arrangements. Bills for these individuals far outweigh their income levels and personal needs are rarely met, if at all. Respondents who fall into this category are considered to be "in crisis" with a tendency to have all basic needs unmet and in need of immediate assistance.

EES Scores


    The two largest categories were "struggling" and "at risk", with 36.8 percent and 39.1 percent, respectively. These categories captured a wide range of situations, ranging from relatively stable, to on the verge of crisis. All of these women were heavily relying on services to stay afloat although some used many more services than others. Only 4.6 percent of respondents in our study scored above a 75, representing the "safe" category. A score this high suggests that these individuals are minimally challenged by a lack of income and their basic needs are sufficiently met through a combination of some community agency assistance, but primarily self-reliance. While these women are more likely to have a stronger sense of stability in their levels of self-sufficiency, they still do not represent the ability to cover three or more months of expenses should their income disappear or economic crisis strike.

Most Common Barriers

     By giving a list of possible barriers for the respondents to choose from, we allowed them to define how their economic self-sufficiency is being impeded. Figure 3 below depicts the top five barriers chosen by respondents; it should be noted they could pick all that applied to their situations.


    The final question in the survey also asked respondents to select the barrier that has the greatest impact on their economic self-sufficiency. As indicated in Figure 4, 34 percent of the respondents agreed that stable employment is the number one barrier to their economic self-sufficiency. However, what the research will suggest is that other barriers such as transportation and affordable housing are going to weigh more on their economic self-sufficiency.


     After creating an economic self-sufficiency model, we ran a bivariate analysis of what our respondents defined as the most detrimental barriers to their ESS. Despite the barriers our female participants proposed to be the most influential on their achieving economic self-sufficiency, our model has shown that reliable transportation, affordable housing, access to mental health care, and self-esteem are the top four most influential barriers. In the analysis below, we use the signifier of (r = x) to denote the strength of each barrier. This equation also shows that the relationship of each barrier to economic self-sufficiency is that of a negative one. This implies that the more often women report needing services for these top four barriers, the less economically self-sufficient they are. Therefore, we can infer that the lower the value in our (r = x) equation, the more this barrier impedes the economic self-sufficiency of our respondents.

     Reliable transportation was shown to be the number one barrier (r = -.594*) against achieving economic self-sufficiency among the women utilizing services from our organizations. During the first focus group, some women commented on unreliable transportation being a problem for them. When specifically referring to the AppalCart in Boone (a free public transportation system that runs throughout Boone, NC), they stated that it was very helpful that the AppalCart is a free service, but that when certain routes are restricted or simply do not run certain days and times, it is very inconvenient for individuals who rely on that transportation for their job.

     Our model showed that affordable housing was the second most influential barrier (r = -.470*) to these women becoming economically self-sufficient. During the second focus group, one participant stated, "The town of Boone takes advantage of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) like you would not believe. $850 for a trailer with two bedrooms? Come on now!" These participants also attributed the high cost of living to college students driving the rent up, stating that students have to live in Boone and will pay whatever they need to for a place to stay during school. Another participant stated, "HUD is the only reason that most people can even make it". According to these participants, affordable housing is almost non-existent in Boone and the only reason they do have a home in most cases is thanks to HUD programs.

     The third most influential barrier to economic self-sufficiency for the women in our study was shown to be access to mental health care (r = -.434*). During our first focus group, a few participants commented on how, because they no longer qualify for Medicaid, they cannot receive the types of services and/or medications they need to deal with their mental illnesses. One participant stated, "I have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I'm supposed to take medicine but I can't afford it because I don't have Medicaid. I know I need counseling and I know I need to talk to someone, but I can't afford that". Another participant stated that she is chronically depressed and manic, which affects her sleeping habits. Those mental illnesses combined with her tragic life experiences (beaten by her parents at a young age) hinder her ability to get a full night's rest. Although she used to take sleeping medicine to help deal with this, she can no longer afford it because she was stripped of her Medicaid. Access to mental health care would be extremely beneficial to these two participants in particular, but also to our target population as a whole, as mental health leads to physical health.

     The fourth most influential barrier to economic self-sufficiency, as shown by our equation, is that of self-esteem (r = -.421*). Throughout our first focus group, the participants consistently brought up how self-esteem is a large barrier to their economic self-sufficiency. One participant, when discussing her experience trying to apply for Medicaid, stated, "Don't you love the way they talk down to you? I'm a strong woman and I left out of there in tears. I felt like I was garbage". Another participant added, "It's the way that they talk to you, like [you're not] good enough, [you're not] doing something right". Yet another participant added, "I should just give up. No one else has faith in me, so why should I have faith in myself?" Clearly, the issue of self-esteem penetrates a variety of aspects in the lives of these women and affects their ability to receive some of the necessary services they seek out.

Most Influential Barrier

     After analyzing the data collected through the surveys, the independent variables were chosen to test the most significant barrier women face in the "high country" in regards to becoming economically self-sufficient. An OLS regression model was used to determine significant relationships between the independent variables chosen and the dependent variable, which was the ESS score. The independent variables included were: age, relationship status, housing, whether the participant lived alone or with others, whether the participant lived inside or outside city limits, number of children, how many children the participant supports financially, the use of financial assistance for childcare, education level, employment status, how many individuals rely on the participant for financial support other than children, income level, transportation, health insurance, the participant' s use of the emergency room for something that was not an emergency within the past year, physical and mental disability status, and self-esteem.

     The results of the regression analysis suggest that while all barriers maintain some level of significance, there is not one specific barrier that keeps women from becoming economically self-sufficient when holding all other independent variables constant. This analysis reveals that there is not a difference in levels of significance among the barriers in predicting economic self-sufficiency. While we ran some interaction variables, none were significant in solely predicting economic self-sufficiency within this sample.

Discussion and Conclusions

     For this project, multiple barriers were identified and evaluated to assess the impact they pose on the achievement of economic self-sufficiency for women in the High Country. It is important to note that of the women who chose to participate in this study, none of them met the living income standard of what is considered economically self-sufficient, as reported by the most recent study by Sirota and McLenaghan (2010).  The data indicated that there is a combination of factors that impede women from becoming economically self-sufficient, though there was little variance among these barriers; showing that no one specific variable keeps women from attaining financial stability. However, the data highlighted four specific barriers that have the greatest impact on self-sufficiency including: reliable transportation, affordable housing, access to mental health care, and self-esteem.

     It should also be noted that within the focus group discussions, participants clearly indicated a number of barriers working in tandem to suppress their economic independence. During one of the focus groups which contained seven women who are all Watauga County residents, it was suggested that they would greatly benefit from additional transportation programs, such as "Wheels to Work", which allows those without reliable transportation the opportunity to use a donated car to transport them to their jobs.  This type of program is especially efficient when forms of public transportation, such as the AppalCart, are not running or are on limited schedules. One respondent stated, "I can't get to work if the bus don't [sic] run when I need to go to work….5am is just early for a public bus I guess." In addition, several participants lamented that many things have to fall in place in order to make it financially. For example, one participant stated, "This isn't rocket science, you know? You need a good job that gives you decent pay so you can pay the babysitter, or even save up for a better car so you can get to work on time so they want fire you. Dominos!!"

     Another barrier to women was affordable housing. Because of the university in Boone, the lack of affordable housing, and the overflow of tourism in this area, it is extremely hard to live affordably in Watauga County (Jenkins 2008). As one focus group participant stated, "HUD is the only reason that most people can even make it". According to these participants, affordable housing is almost non-existent in Boone and the only reason they do have a home in many cases is thanks to program such as HUD, which offers homeownership assistance programs.
Access to mental health care was portrayed as the third most important barrier for these women. Women are often times more likely to be exposed to repeated stressors, influencing rates of depression, malnourishment or eating disorders, high risk of anxiety, as well as a passel of other mental health concerns, and while options for the uninsured and unemployed are growing, the costs of mental health care are still too great for many women to afford (NCSL 2013). During a focus group discussion, one participant stated, "We all need support. I know the money matters but I need folks to talk to so I can get things off my chest and take it home to my babies." For these women, being able to access mental health services and medications is crucial because it also influences their physical health, job stability, and overall self-esteem.

     The last major barrier to economic self-sufficiency for these women was that of self-esteem. Certainly, the lack of self-esteem can be related to the levels of education, income, and economic prospects for women in this sample. During the focus groups, women consistently described how their situations chip away at their levels of self-esteem. These women stated that when they try to receive assistance from agencies to better themselves, they feel demoralized by the way they are spoken to and treated, which negatively impacts their self-esteem. The presence of negative stereotypes and stigmatization can contribute to the lack of women pursuing service agencies.
     As past research has shown, women find themselves at an economic disadvantage. The evident wage discrepancy between men and women has led to women having generally higher levels of poverty; referred to as the feminization of poverty. Moreover, women continue to carry the economic and emotional burden of raising children. Overarching all of these women's problems is the fact that they live in an area that struggles to offer enough jobs and adequate wages to live and thrive. Overall, this research shows that there continues to be a number of variables that explain women's inability to be self-sufficient; however, there is no one variable that seems to best predict economic dependency or independence for women in the region.

     There are some limitations to the data presented that should be considered and applied with caution. First, this data is regionally specific to the High Country of North Carolina including Ashe, Avery, and Watauga Counties and based mostly on a convenience sample of women who were identified by our partner agencies for participation. Therefore, these women were already receiving some services to help them economically cope, skewing our economic self-sufficiency matrix scores to a more positive result of less women in economic crisis. More important, we did not talk to women who were possibly receiving no services to economically cope, which may provide a very different set of conditions.

     Second, the data collected did not include a racially or ethnically diverse sample even though the areas have some diversity. The three counties identified has recently seen a 2 to 3 percent increase in the Latino population (Lippard and Price 2011). The economic conditions that Latino women face in this area may be different, particularly since many are first-arrival immigrants to the area who do not know much about available services (Lippard and Price 2011).

     Future researchers should consider looking at a larger population, possibly a statewide study in order to get more accurate results and full comparisons. Random sampling should also be an integral part in continuing research regarding women's self-sufficiency in the area to ensure diversity.  Certainly, it is important for this research to be continued and attempt to include women who are not already receiving services from various public and private agencies. Finally, more focus groups need to be conducted to collect more qualitative data to further explain issues illustrated with this research, particularly the intersectionality of several barriers women continue to face attempting to economically survive in Western North Carolina. 

     However, this research is unique in that it focuses on a specific area of North Carolina, the "High Country", which is similar to other small mountain areas which may be facing similar issues with economic self-sufficiency among women. Being able to understand the unique barriers women in areas like the "High Country" face and understanding how those barriers may differ than barriers in an urban setting is beneficial to investigating targeted solutions. The findings from this study are also interesting because they measure respondents' thoughts about their ESS barriers with what the multivariate regression model equates with ESS barriers for the target population. Discovering that women's perceptions of barriers and model-defined barriers differed, can allow organizations and researchers to address the most influential indicators of economic self-sufficiency.


*This research was a collaborative effort with the Appalachian Women's Fund of North Carolina and undergraduate students from a senior seminar course in the Department of Sociology at Appalachian State University. We would like to especially recognize the following student contributions by listing their names: Christine Beatty, Kendra Black, Lew Cabral, Katherine Caswell, Alexander Dale, Hope Dearman, Lisa Hall, Natalie Harkey, Katelyn Latino, Nicholas Logel, Hannah Lowman, Brian Okam, and Cory Sommer.


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