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Maria Shriver at the Carousel of Hope Gala at the Beverly Hilton Hotel on October 23, 2010 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research last week assembled a focus group of 44 swing voters to measure their responses to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. They discovered that reaction soared off the charts when the president discussed women's economic issues, asserting that "when women succeed, America succeeds."

Two days later, former California first lady Maria Shriver returned to Sacramento for the first time since her estranged ex-husband left office and took some deserved credit for having helped elevate women's economic issues in the American consciousness.

Last month, she released a book, "A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink," a publication that put into clear focus a reality that much of America intuitively understands: Today in America, the face of poverty is feminine, often that of a working woman.

"The new iconic image of the economically insecure American is a working mother dashing around getting ready in the morning, brushing her kid's hair with one hand and doling out medication to her aging mother with the other," Shriver writes in the introduction.

Shriver met with Obama two weeks before his speech. She believes her message got through. On the night of the address, an Air Force veteran who is a single working mother and whose story is told in the Shriver Report was a guest in Michelle Obama's box seats in the House chambers. And in the president's speech, Shriver said, "He hit every note."


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The book crystallizes a fundamental American story that has largely been hiding in plain sight. It is part research, part storytelling and part advocacy. But it is not polemic. Mostly, it is an exercise in explaining a hard truth about American society by pulling together information that most folks already knew and knitting it into a coherent narrative.

Shriver spoke last week to an audience of about 300, most of them women, in an auditorium at the California Museum, an institution she helped to invigorate as first lady. She said the idea for the book was borne from another of her first-lady endeavors, the annual women's conferences she sponsored.

"We knew that something was going on," she said.

Here is some of what is going on: 42 million American women are living on the brink of poverty; women make up two-thirds of minimum-wage workers; working women are more likely to be poor than working men; the workforce in fast-growing service and caregiving occupations in which wages are stagnant and benefits often nonexistent is dominated by women; and more than half of babies born to women 30 and under are born to unmarried mothers, most of them white.

And Shriver also notes this: Women make up 54 percent of the American electorate.

By and large, however, Shriver's message is not a call to political action, although that is a component. She offers advice for parents to tell their daughters, and for those daughters to internalize: Put college before kids, and be clearheaded when choosing a partner.

"It's easier to raise children with two incomes, it really is," she said. "Be smart. You will end up being a provider instead of being provided for."

A large-sample poll done for the book, jointly conducted by Democratic and Republican polling firms, produced some interesting findings. The No. 1 thing working women on the brink say they need is paid sick leave. Their No. 1 regret is they didn't stay longer in school.

Among the electorate, the poll found some common ground. Regardless of their moral views on single-parenting, two-thirds of Americans agree that government programs need to better adapt to the reality of the nature of modern-day families.

Shriver, whose father helped launch the War on Poverty 50 years ago, naturally believes there remains an imperative for government to continue its role, in large part by doing a better job of promoting existing programs.

"One of the things I found out as first lady is there are lot of programs, but nobody knows that they're there," Shriver said. She cited the Earned Income Tax Credit and CalFresh, the California program formerly known as food stamps.

Employers, too, must adapt to the modern realities of their workforce, Shriver asserts. Providing paid sick leave and flexible work hours, she said, is part of what is necessary to be "a 21st century employer."

The report recommends that women use their power as both voters and consumers to force government and business to awake to the challenges of millions of women living on the brink.

"I would say to women," she said, "pull it together."