According to the National Committee on Pay Equity, the median annual income in the year 2000 for all women working full time was 73 percent of what men earned. While this is a slight improvement over the year before (in 1999 it was 72 percent) the narrowing of the wage gap was due to men earning less, not women earning more.
The median income of African-American women working full time was 64 percent of what white men earned in 2000, or $25,117. White women working full time earned 72 percent ($28,080) of what white men earned. And Hispanic women working full time earned 52 percent ($20,527) of the income of full time white male workers.
According to the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor in 2000, the vast majority of women work in a limited number of low paying occupations. The median wage in the top occupation for women (“sales worker, retail and personal services”) is $301 a week. In the late 1990s African-American women were most commonly employed as “nursing aides, orderlies and attendants,” while Latinas were most commonly employed as cashiers.
An AFL-CIO Pay Equity Fact Sheet reveals that the income from jobs available to the majority of women of color do not “pay enough to reach the poverty line for a family of four,” which was $16,036 in 1996.
The Institute For Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) reports that while women are 44 percent of the full-time work force, they are 77 percent of all part-time workers. During the peak earning years between the ages of 25 and 54, 30 percent of women work part time. For many women part-time employment is the only option because of family care (children and/or parents) responsibilities. And for taking this responsibility seriously women pay a significant economic price, in part because pious politicians preach family values but refuse to value families.
The effects of this political hypocrisy have been discussed by Jody Heymann in a recent study entitled “The Widening Gap: Why American’s Working Families Are In Jeopardy and What Can Be Done About It.” One of her key findings is that low-income women workers have few job benefits. Nearly 60 percent of employed mothers lack sick leave. Few have paid leave or flexible schedules. And more than 50 per cent cannot take time off to care for sick children. This is particularly the case for part time women workers who are not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which, in any case, only requires employers to provide unpaid time off to tend to a family sickness.
Nor does income discrimination end with the fact that only 23 percent of unemployed women qualify for unemployment benefits because of income thresholds. The lifetime effects of low pay and part time work for women extend into retirement. According to the Social Security Administration, only 27 percent of women have a private or public pension. With a work history of low-paying jobs a disproportionate number of women are relegated to a retirement of poverty where the median income of single women 65 or older was $11,382 in 1998, and lower social security benefits for women significantly reduce the joint income of retired couples.
Market mechanisms can’t be relied on to secure a decent living for working women and their families. The government must chart a new course. What needs to be done is obvious: equal pay for women; paid family leave; a minimum wage that is a living wage; universal healthcare; affordable day care for children; and a social security income that provides for a dignified retirement. If talk about family values is to be more than a diversion then the necessary resources should be mobilized to provide for the real needs of working families, not squandered on more tax cuts that only benefit the families of millionaires.