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Equal Pay is Important, but Not the Only Solution

Today we celebrate Equal Pay Day. While this holiday is meant for us to look back to 1963 when the United States passed the groundbreaking Equal Pay Act to end sex discrimination in the workplace, progress has been wrenchingly slow. 

On average, women today still make $0.77 for every dollar earned by a man, up about 17 cents from 1963. While that is progress, it still takes women a year and three months to earn what a man does in a year, representing about $400,000 less in lifetime earnings; an amount big enough to affect her ability to put her kids through college or to retire with economic security. This is not only unfair, it’s harmful to families who rely on women’s wages to get by; an increasingly large portion of the American workforce.

On a day like today, it is important to look holistically at how women support families, and to remember that economic well-being also hinges on access to non-wage benefits like affordable childcare, paid leave, and workplace flexibility. Without a doubt, working moms do more than just work, making their time – and the price it should capture on the market – more valuable than ever.

In fact, the Pew Center looked at how working men and women spent their days and discovered that, unlike any other time, both men and women are each juggling more paid work and housework. Yet, Anne York looked at the same time-use data and points out that between working men and working women, men spend about an hour more a day on leisure activities and women spend about that same amount of extra time bathing the kids, cleaning up after dinner, and sorting mail, among other household tasks. Like Catherine Rampell, she argues that as a culture, we might be limiting the earning potential of mothers by expecting more of them at home, and we might be limiting our country’s economic viability in the process.

Next Generation’s Vice President Ann O’Leary commented similarly at a recent rally, mentioning that weak protections for women in the work force threatens the country’s economic future, especially as women lack access to affordable and reliable childcare options. For low-wage and single mothers, the rising cost of childcare threatens their economic security and often limits their ability to work, or to take steps to improve their earning potential, like taking night classes.

For women who can work and afford childcare, many cannot afford to get sick, or to have their children get sick. The Center for American Progress estimates that about a third of working parents lack access to paid sick leave or schedule flexibility and face losing a day’s wages, if not their job, if a child is too sick for daycare. 

Pay loss to care for sick children, or to address other family needs, is even more concentrated in low-income working families.  The latest Working Poor Families Project report  finds that workers from the lowest income households are more often cobbling together part-time service-sector jobs, few of which offer paid sick leave or schedule flexibility for childcare and other family necessities, and more of which are staffed by moms.

As depicted in the Game of Wages, men and women have many opportunities to earn more for their time. While many factors shape the wage a person earns, such as education, starting salary, family responsibility, paid leave, and personal tenacity, to name a few, being a women is sadly still a predicative metric for earnings later in life.

We owe it to half the nation’s workforce, and a growing cohort of women who are primary breadwinners for their family, to support efforts that re-balance the equation, such as promoting paid family and sick leave and more comprehensive child care reforms. These alone won’t solve the problem, but they’re a good place to start.  

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