When we hear the term “war on women,” it generally refers to attempts by state and local governments to limit women’s access to reproductive services. While this is a real and serious issue (and one that makes me very angry), there is another war raging that is just as insidious and receives far less media attention. The economic war on women.
As a professional woman with a good job and a stable economic situation, I recognize the enormous privileges I enjoy. But the more I understand just how much of an exception I am among women in my own country, the more obsessed I have become with learning everything I can about why the number of women living in poverty in the U.S. is at such a record high and how we can fix it. To that end, I have been devouring The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, released last month by the Center for American Progress.
Here is some of what I’ve learned.
Of the more than 100 million people in the United States who are living in or near poverty, 70 percent are women and their children, despite the fact that women comprise half of the U.S. workforce and hold the majority of college and advanced degrees. (We also make up the majority of the country’s breadwinners, caregivers, consumers and voters.)
Why is poverty for women so lopsided? Well, as with most things, there is no one answer. But we can easily point to several main contributors to this phenomenon.
The first, and probably the most widely known, is the persistent pay gap between men and women. Five decades after Peggy Olson fought Don Draper for the equal pay that she deserved, women still earn only 70 cents on average for every dollar earned by a man. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. African American women earn 64 cents and Hispanic women 55 cents on average for every dollar earned by white men.
I’ve been hearing about this wage gap my whole life, but the cause has never been clear. It can’t possibly be that a majority of employers are just outright sexist, can it? The answer is that while that’s part the reason, it’s not the whole story.
If you look at average wages for low-wage jobs in a variety of sectors such as construction, nursing, home-care and truck driving, with a few exceptions, the jobs we know to be dominated by women pay less on average than those we know to be dominated by men. The exceptions are for jobs such as registered nurse and teacher, which require more education.
Aside from lower pay, many jobs lack family-friendly policies, such as predictable work schedules, paid sick leave and medical insurance. While this is bad for everyone, it affects women most acutely as they are more likely to be the primary or sole caregiver of children.
Without the ability to plan their schedules week-to-week or day-to-day, or the flexibility to take off work to care for a sick child without losing pay, or worse, their job, women are often forced to choose between their jobs and their other responsibilities, leaving them in a cycle of economic instability.
A 2013 Cornell study referenced in the Shriver Report found that the U.S. dropped from 6th to 17th in rankings of female labor force participation between 1990 and 2010. The study’s authors cited one main reason as our failure to keep up with other countries in terms of family-friendly policies. In fact, we are the only developed country that doesn’t require paid maternity leave. In that category we find ourselves in the company of only three other countries: Papua New Guinea, Swaziland and Liberia.
CCC has always emphasized the particular needs of women in our fight for economic justice, for example, in our push for a caregiver credit for Social Security, which primarily benefits women by ensuring they receive credits toward their Social Security when they leave the labor market to care for children or ailing relatives. It is one of the things that attracted me to the organization.
As we embark on our new campaign, catalyzing a movement to fight poverty in the U.S. through more and better jobs, we will continue to focus on the particular needs of women. Join our movement to fight poverty by signing our Fight Poverty NOW pledge.