The Wage Ravine

It’s tempting to look solely at the wage gap and think the only thing keeping men and women from economic parity is 23 cents. We tend to ignore the other ways women, especially LGBTQ-identified women, women of color, and LGBTQ-identified women of color, are saddled with undo economic burdens because complication is hard.

Well, hold onto your knickers, because things are about to get much more complicated. (LGBT women’s economic struggles are simultaneously complicated and erased by our society that they were the subject of their own post in this series.)

After taking issues like the lack of a living wage, the wealth disparity, biases embedded in social security, and access to health care into account, women’s economic disadvantages compared to men stop looking so easy to brush off. The excuse that the difference is due to choice becomes very dubious when the “gap” you’re referring to is actually the Grand Canyon.

Much of the income disparity in the United States comes from the fact that the minimum wage is not a living wage. Women make up about two-thirds of minimum wage earners in the US, though it varies from state to state. For example, in my home state of Indiana women make up almost three-quarters of minimum wage earners. Women of color are over-represented, making up 22 percent of all minimum wage earners, but only about 18.5 percent of the US population. Women are also increasingly co-breadwinners or the sole breadwinners for their families, meaning that a significant portion of women are trying to support a family with wages that put them thousands of dollars below the poverty line.

But income alone only tells part of the story. Women’s lived experiences are much more complicated than what they make on the job. It’s also about how many loans they have to pay back, if they own a home or a car or a boat, if they have a stock portfolio.

Wealth refers to your total assets, including cash, property and investment (minus debt). According to wealth gap researcher Dr. Mariko Chang, women hold about 36 percent as much wealth as men in the U.S. Never-married women only have about 6 percent of the wealth men have. For Hispanic/Latina and black women, they hold a fraction of a penny of wealth for every dollar a white man holds. More than half of all single Hispanic/Latina women have either no assets, or debts that outweigh their assets.

The wealth gap clearly illustrates what Virginia Woolf bemoans in A Room of One’s Own: men’s historic ability to amass and inherit wealth has put (white) men as a group at an advantage over women, especially women of color. Property rights for married white women in the U.S. weren’t established until the mid-19th century. It wasn’t until decades later that a significant portion of the U.S.’ female population was no longer considered property themselves.

Historic access to wealth combines with historic devaluing of female labor to create a vacuum of financial stability for women in the U.S. Women are more likely to leave paid labor to enter into the unpaid workforce: the hard work of family caretakers and homemakers. Jobs that we would otherwise pay for–cooking, cleaning, laundry, caring for children or the elderly–are taken over by female family members.

Though these women are often recognized and appreciated within their own families, the time they take off from the paid labor force means that they miss out on Social Security benefits. Women already live longer than men; the lack of Social Security benefits makes the prospect of retirement that much more daunting for women in the U.S. This is why NOW supports caregiver credits–women’s time outside of the workplace does benefit the U.S. economy, but their work continues to go unrecognized by U.S. law.

Until the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, health insurance was a much more expensive proposition for women than men due to gender rating. Combined with their disproportionately low wages and lack of wealth, this means that too many women had to forgo health insurance. And while access to health care has improved since the ACA went into effect, the refusal by many states to expand Medicare means that people who fall between the poorest of Americans and lower-middle income Americans are not insured. Being uninsured makes these people much more economically vulnerable, as health care costs are one of the leading causes of poverty in the U.S.  That the U.S. failed to pass universal health care provisions is embarrassing.

This already dire economic landscape is worsened when women aren’t given the tools to plan their own families. In 2010, 30 states received federal funding for abstinence-only sex education policies. More abortion restrictions were passed in the U.S. between 2011 and 2013 than were passed in the entire decade preceding. These laws make it more difficult and more expensive to receive necessary medical care–medical care that is more necessary due to the fact that our nation’s young people are woefully misinformed when it comes to safe sex. Unplanned families tend to be unhealthier and more economically unstable.

With the deck stacked against women– especially women of color–in terms of economic instability, it’s infuriating when we’re told that we’ve chosen our way to this place. We exist in a legal and societal landscape that doesn’t respect women’s choices and too-often tries to make them for us. And now that we’re choosing to speak out, we’re being silenced by a society that refuses to acknowledge its own history and flaws.

Have you ever tried to hop across a ravine?

4 responses to “The Wage Ravine

  1. I recently retired after 23 years as a college psychology instructor. Most of my students thought Roe v. Wade is about pro- life v. Abortion rather than our right to make decisions about our own health and pregnancy. The media has so perverted the issue that we need to step up educational efforts to younger women to remove the apathy and complacency towards this important issue!

  2. 125% of my monthly income goes toward my student loans. As a recent MBE married graduate, I was far better off without an education. Now I live at work daily at $8.05 per hour, paying $1,025 per month in student loans.

  3. 125% of my monthly income goes toward my student loans. As a recent MBE married graduate, I was far better off without an education. Now I work daily at $8.05 per hour, paying $1,025 per month in student loans.

  4. I totally agree to wage parity, but only if NOW endorses fathers getting custody. Women have gotten custody and whined about single motherhood for long enough. Lets give daddies a chance and tie it to a gender parity pay bill.

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