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New report says millions of women at risk of falling into poverty, economic ruin

Although in recent decades women have made historic advances in nearly all areas of American public life, a staggering number of women across the country are still teetering on the verge of poverty and economic disaster, a new report released Sunday shows.

Brandon Thibodeaux / for NBC News

Eveline's Sunshine Cottage resident Sheneka Collins helps her daughter, Tamiya, 7, with her homework at their home in Amarillo, TX, on Wednesday. Low-income or homeless single mothers are offered lodging and financial support through the program.

The report, co-authored by NBC News special anchor Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, takes a wide-angle snapshot of a national economic crisis — seen through the eyes of women. The key findings paint a portrait of an estimated 42 million women — and 28 million dependent children — saddled with financial hardship.

"These are not women who are wondering if they can 'have it all,'" Shriver wrote in her introduction to the report. "These are women who are already doing it all — working hard, providing, parenting, and care-giving. They're doing it all, yet they and their families can't prosper, and that's weighing the U.S. economy down."

Amid an apparent boom in female empowerment and participation — a time in which women earn the majority of secondary degrees and represent more than half of the country's voters — the report says that millions of women are still struggling on the margins of American society, bruised by the recent recession and the day-to-day trials of family finances.

Women make up close to two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in the country — and upwards of 70 percent of those low-wage workers receive no paid sick days whatsoever, according to the report. 

“These are people who are trying to survive on minimum wage, which is not a living wage,” Shriver said on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday. “The number one thing that would make the most difference to them is getting sick days,” she added.

All the while, some 40 percent of all American households with children below the age of 18 include mothers who are either the only or primary source of income — with the average earnings of full-time female workers still just 77 percent of the average earnings of their male colleagues, the report reads.

The authors also presented the results of a survey of 3,500 adults across America that offers a glimpse into the on-the-ground realities of contemporary womanhood. Republican and Democratic pollsters worked together to "write a statistical narrative" of the women who "are an essential part of our nation's fabric and economy," the report says.

Among the chief findings from survey respondents who are low-income females:

  • 75 percent wish they had devoted more time and energy to education and career — relative to 58 percent of the general population.
  • 73 percent wish they had made better financial decisions over the course of their lives — and so did 65 percent of the total survey group.
  • Low-income women are more likely than men to regret tying the knot when they did — 52 percent versus 33 percent.
  • And nearly one-third of low-income women with children wish they had postponed having children — or had fewer of them.

And yet despite the discouraging signs of economic gender inequality, "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink" features a wide range of potential remedies — from prospective policy initiatives to community programs. The authors of the report say that turning away from historical injustices and embracing a more equitable future will boost the U.S. economy.

One such recommendation that Shriver highlighted on Meet the Press on Sunday was for women to think of themselves “as providers, not being provided for."

"Many women who responded to the poll said they wished they had stayed in school longer and Shriver said fathers and husbands need to reinforce the mindset that women can set themselves up to be breadwinners.

“Men are totally a part of this conversation, in terms of how they raise their daughters, in terms of how they support their wives and their partners,” she said.

Shriver will appear on NBC and MSNBC platforms this week to discuss the report.

The report — which weaves together the personal stories of working women with "public, private and personal recommendations that can help reignite the American Dream for women and their families" — is the third such document published by the eponymous nonprofit media initiative in the last five years. The first was focused on the growth of the female workforce; the second on the Alzheimer's epidemic.

Dozens of luminaries in government, business, academia and the arts — from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pop star Beyoncé Knowles-Carter — contributed reflections to the document. 

"I have always believed that women are not victims," Clinton wrote. "We are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, and we are makers of peace. All we need is a fighting chance."

In a short essay, Beyoncé decried gender inequalities and pay disparities between men and women.

"We have to teach our boys the rules of equality and respect, so that as they grow up, gender equality becomes a natural way of life," she wrote. "And we have to teach our girls that they can reach as high as humanly possible."

Later in the report, Facebook Chief Operating Officer and "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg makes the case for nationwide paid maternity leave policy and reductions to the skyrocketing cost of child care, among other policy proposals.

And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) calls for "more women in office at every level of government."

"We have to do better," Gillibrand wrote. "That requires demanding better from our elected leaders, and to me, that means changing the face of those leaders so that their agendas reflect women’s needs."

Shriver said that since women make up 54 percent of voters, “women are at the center of our country,” and Democrats and Republicans need to work together “to modernize our relationships to women.”“When women do well, men do well and the nation does well,” Shriver said.