Informing policy. Inspiring change. Improving lives.
1200 18th Street NW, Suite 301
Washington, DC 20036
202 785-5100
iwpr@iwpr.org

The ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Fix—Good, Bad, and Ugly

There’s a lot of good news in the deal negotiated by the White House and Congress that resulted in the passage of the American Taxpayer Relief Act, signed yesterday by the President.

First, we should mention as really good news, the bad stuff that is not in the deal. There is no increase in the Medicare eligibility age or a cut in the Social Security cost of living adjustment (COLA) based on an inaccurate inflation index for the elderly, the chained CPI. In other words, this deal did not target the basic programs that retirees and many of the disabled, including disabled veterans, rely on. These benefits have not been cut. This is good news because so many Americans, especially older women, who are the majority of the elderly, rely on these programs for the vast majority of their income. This is a huge victory for the large coalitions of organizations working to protect these programs from cuts and to improve their benefits. Although many pundits, CEOs, and newspaper editorial boards assume that cuts in these programs are needed to reduce the deficit, that is simply not so. Without more effective cost controls on health care in general, cutting Medicare benefits would simply shift costs from a government program paid for by workers’ life-long contributions to other retirement resources they may have and increase health care costs overall. Similarly, cutting Social Security benefits would force retirees to rely more on other retirement income or assets, which—for most retirees—have been shrinking due to the Great Recession and the slow recovery. Many retirees would simply see their standard of living fall—some would fall into poverty. The solution is not cuts to these programs, but controlling health care costs and raising more revenues. For example, removing the cap on earnings so that all workers pay the same tax rate for Social Security (the cap for 2013 is $113,700—dollars earned above that amount are not assessed any Social Security tax) would solve all of Social Security’s long-term funding shortfall (a shortfall not expected to occur for another 20 years anyway).

More good news: Important Obama tax credits for low and middle income families, such as the expanded child tax credit, the expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, the American Opportunity Credit–a tuition tax credit—are renewed for five years. And the Bush tax cuts for the rich, which President Obama had previously agreed to extend for two years through the end of 2012, have now been eliminated for individuals making more than $400,000 per year and married couples making more than $450,000 per year. The ending of this cut for the rich, in place since the early years of the Bush administration, amounts to the first significant increase in income tax rates in many years. In addition some cuts in allowable exemptions will affect those earning above $250,000. Compared with policy current as of December 31, tax rates on dividends and capital gains are also higher than they were for higher income filers (increased from 15 percent to 20 percent).  The tax rate on estates valued at $5 million and up ($10 million for married couples) has increased from 35 percent to 40 percent. These higher rates, along with the lower income taxes for everyone earning less than $250,000, have been described as “permanent,” which should provide some sense of security going forward. (Of course, Congress could change these rates at any time—but they don’t have a sunset date as the original Bush tax cuts did.)

Another important positive is the extension of federal unemployment benefits for those looking for work for more than 26 weeks, preventing cutting off benefits for 2 million unemployed and giving them a lifeline for another 12 months.

Some of these provisions are also the bad news: had the fiscal cliff not been negotiated away, we would have fallen over the cliff, and tax rates on estates, dividends, and capital gains would be higher yet, and the income level for the elimination of the tax rate cuts would have corresponded to the level the President campaigned on ($200,000 for individuals, $250,000 for married couples), so some critics may feel the White House lost tax revenues here that it should have held onto. After all, reducing a deficit can be done either by cutting spending or by increasing revenues, and, for women, who depend so much on government programs (Title X family planning funds, for example, or services for domestic violence victims) any loss in potential revenue and failure to harvest new revenues likely means bigger future cuts to programs they rely on.

Other bad news: the payroll tax cut was not extended.  For the past two years, most workers paid a contribution deducted from their paychecks of 4.2 percent of their earnings for Social Security instead of the normal 6.2 percent. This reduction, always seen as temporary and originally passed for one year, and then extended for a second, helped to stimulate the economy during the weak recovery of 2011 and 2012, by adding about $120 billion to consumer demand each year (not counting multiplier effects). What this means is that many low and middle earners will actually see their taxes increase—they will still get the income tax rate cuts that are now permanent and the Obama tax credit expansions but those will be more than offset by the payroll tax increase that supports Social Security. This is bad news for millions of families and for the overall economy, which still needs more stimulus, not less.

The ugly is what remains to be negotiated: the sequester and increasing the U.S. Government’s borrowing authority. The sequester is a nine-year planned cut in expenditures of approximately $110 billion per year, including both defense spending (50 percent) and discretionary non-defense spending (50 percent) that would have gone into effect automatically on January 1, 2013, had this fix, which extends that deadline 2 months, not gone through. A two-month delay is good because those are huge cuts in spending that could trigger an economy-wide downturn, but the delay may not be long enough to allow the crafting of good alternatives.  In fact, the just-inked deal includes $12 billion in spending cuts that are a down payment on future anticipated cuts.

At the same time, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has announced that the U.S. Government has now reached its borrowing limit and is using extraordinary measures to make sure we can pay all our bills. While many of the pundits and CEOs mentioned above, as well as some centrist members of Congress from both parties, are arguing for cuts in spending rather than more revenues as a way to downsize our deficits, it is the Republican members of Congress aligned with the Tea Party who are demanding significant cuts in federal spending, particularly in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicare, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. Perhaps they have not seen the survey research that shows that adults of all political parties (including the Tea Party) oppose cuts in benefits provided by these programs.

In the next two months we are certain to see some more really big battles to protect critical programs for all Americans, programs which are even more essential for women.

Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

New Guide to Illustrate Women’s Needs in the MENA Region

By Caroline Dobuzinskis

A new toolkit by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research  and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) with funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), serves as a guide for the creation, dissemination, and promotion of reports on the status of women in the Middle East and North Africa. Using Research on the Status of Women to Improve Public Policy:A Capacity-Building Toolkit for Nongovernmental Organizations lays out a blueprint for using accurate research on the status of women as a means to shape public policy and give women in the MENA region a voice.

The toolkit, Using Research on the Status of Women to Improve Public Policies, outlines how to:

1. Create a diverse working advisory committee;
2. Identify relevant data sources and key research indicators;
3. Plan and create a press release strategy;
4. Communicate with aligned or peer organizations to push advocacy forward; and
5. Train women for leadership roles through mentorship and other programs.

A report on the status of women is a powerful tool for informing policy decisions. The reports are useful in indicating where women need to be better served through educational and health care systems, and how they can be better integrated into the labor market. International advocates and NGOs, and other individuals and groups in the private and public sectors, have long argued that women’s empowerment and full participation in the economy can help them, their families, and their communities, and can strengthen the productivity and economy of an entire nation.

In September 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke of the economic cost of lack of inclusion or restrictions to women’s full participation in the economy: “By increasing women’s participation in the economy and enhancing their efficiency and productivity, we can have a dramatic impact on the competitiveness and growth of our economies,” she said in her remarks to the APEC Conference that year. In October of this year, at a meeting titled “Power—Woman as Engine of Growth & Social Inclusion”,  Clinton cited the economic costs of lack of women’s participation or supports for women in the Asia Pacific, Eurozone, and other regions.

As part of a joint project on the Status of Women in the Middle East and North Africa, in 2010, IWPR and IFES released topic briefs on the status of women in Yemen, Morocco, and Lebanon. Among the findings in Yemen, for example, is that women who work for pay have greater freedom of movement, and have greater financial savings and access to credit. The surveys in Yemen also found that women with higher levels of education tend to have more access to health care resources.

IWPR’s new capacity-building toolkit provides information for non-governmental organizations to organize and use similar research to to support women in leadership roles, and how to design an advocacy campaign and a call-to-action for improved policy to support women.

The toolkit is available online at the IWPR website and IWPR experts are available to comment on its recommendations. 

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Four Key Policy Priorities for Women Missing from Election Debate


By Caroline Dobuzinskis and Mallory Mpare

As we head into the elections, and looking forward, what are some of the less-talked about issues that will be important to women after November 6? Women are often those making family decisions on education, child care, and health care. They are also more likely to serve as caregivers for children or older relatives. Perhaps as a result, they tend to be more likely to support providing services for families, children, and the elderly.

The wage gap, women in the workplace, and access to reproductive health services have received much of the focus in this campaign, but there are some other key areas that are likely on the radar of many women voters:

1. Paid Sick Days: Several city and state legislatures are considering paid sick days legislation. At the national level, the Healthy Families Act was re-introduced to Congress in 2011, but has not moved forward. Earned sick time laws provide paid time off to workers in the event that they fall ill or need to care for a sick family member. According to IWPR research, paid time off for workers improves workers’ self-reported well-being and also can reduce health costs. Also according to IWPR research, in 2010, 44 million American workers lacked paid sick days, and could put their jobs at risk for taking a sick day. Although this year’s campaign talk focused largely on the costs of Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, the lack of paid sick days also contributes to government health care costs. Workers without time off are more likely to put off care and visit emergency rooms instead of promptly visiting a doctor. This means higher costs for public and private insurers—costing up to $1 billion nationally (including $500 million in taxpayer-funded public health care programs for children, seniors, and low-income Americans). Women benefit disproportionately from paid sick days because they are more likely to serve as caregivers for children and older adults, and time off to care for an ill child or parent would be covered under the Healthy Families Act and other paid sick days legislation.

2. Health Care Reform. Famously, the much contested Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act stopped insurance companies from considering being a woman a pre-existing condition and charging higher rates to women than men for similar insurance policies. Lesser-known provisions in the Affordable Health Care Act are also already benefiting women in education and in the workplace.

The Pregnancy Assistance Fund (PAF) was implemented as part of the ACA in 2010 and has since quietly supported women in achieving education by awarding competitive grants to state programs to help parents and pregnant students complete or stay in school. For example, a “Steps to Success” program in Minnesota provides counseling and merit-based scholarships to college students with children (learn more about similar programs by listening to our webinar on the topic). Research has shown that a mother’s achieving higher education can contribute to the well-being of both mother and child.

In addition, the ACA is helping working mothers through a requirement that employers provide reasonable break time and a private place for nursing mothers. This could help improve the rate of breastfeeding in the country and meet the goals of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Healthy People 2020 initiative.

3. Social Security. The gender wage gap that women face during their working lives is not stemmed at retirement, but continues to leave older women economically vulnerable. As a result, older women—and particularly women of color—are traditionally more reliant on Social Security. IWPR research has shown that older men have also become more reliant on Social Security due to a shift toward less stable defined contribution pension plans away from defined benefit pension plans  during their work lives.

IWPR, in collaboration with the NOW Foundation and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, released a report in May 2012 calling for modernizing Social Security to help make the program even more beneficial to women and families than it already is.  Proposed changes include increasing benefits to survivors and providing credits to increase recorded earnings for caregivers who are devoting time to taking care of children, elderly parents, or disabled relatives. The report also proposes modernizing the program by providing equal benefits to same-sex married couples and partners. Affordable means of funding Social Security and improvements to the program include “scrapping the cap,” meaning eliminating the cap on earnings on which Social Security payroll taxes are assessed, requiring all workers at all earnings levels to pay the same tax rate.

4. Early Care and Education. Quality, reliable, affordable child care can be key to women attaining education and entering or advancing in the labor market. Currently, student parents at colleges and universities in the United States lack adequate child care. IWPR’s research shows that existing on-campus child care meets only a very small portion of the need—hovering close to just five percent. Student parents make up 26 percent of community college students and many have young children. A recent IWPR toolkit profiles several existing programs providing a wide variety of child care services at institutions of higher learning that attempt to address the lack of child care

Nancy Pelosi believes affordable early care and education can provide “the missing link” for boosting women’s contributions to the economy. According to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of mothers with children under the age of 17 now work. Many women and families are already suffering under the strains of child care’s high costs.  As the economy begins to recover and more women enter the labor market, the need for affordable child care will increase.

Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Mallory Mpare is Communications Assistant at IWPR.

Election 2012: What Can We Learn Now from Women’s Equality Day?

This article by Susan Bailey is reposted from the blog, Girl with Pen (girlwpen.com).

This year marked the 41st anniversary of Women’s Equality Day, marked each year on August 26th to commemorate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment which granted women the right to vote in 1920. For many not actively engaged in women’s issues, it’s merely another in a long list of little known awareness days. But this election year’s escalating anti-woman rhetoric is crazy making. I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole into the land of the absurd. When ‘rape’ and ‘legitimate’ can be used in the same breath and women and men of reason are called upon to counter medieval constructs of female biology, I need the lessons of Women’s Equality Day. Maybe others do, too.

Women’s Equality Day originated after New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug proposed August 26th be so designated in honor of the 1920 ratification of the Woman’s Suffrage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The designation reflected the renewed energy of the ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement. It was an attempt to reclaim lost history.

By the 1960‘s, the struggles preceding the final ratification the 19th amendment had been largely forgotten. If school books mentioned women’s rights at all, a single sentence usually sufficed: “Women were given the vote in 1920.” The 70-year battle for women’s suffrage was not considered a significant part of our national history.

Beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 and continuing until 1920 when the Tennessee legislature became the 36th state required for a two thirds majority, women battled for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote. They organized, lobbied, protested and picketed. Their efforts were mocked and ridiculed. Protesters were arrested, jailed, and force fed though tubes shoved down their throats. Leaders did not always agree on tactics. But women persisted. Far from being given the right to vote, women fought hard to win it.

Some of the rights women worked for and achieved over the years have remained controversial. There are many battles still to be fought and re-fought. The right to vote and to run for office is not one of these. It stands unquestioned.

But a key result the women and men who fought for suffrage expected, equal representation of women in elected office, remains elusive. Ninety two years after women won the right to vote, women make up barely 17 percent of the U.S. Congress. This percentage leaves us tied for 78th place with Turkmenistan in global rankings of national elected representatives.

At the state level it’s not much better. Women hold 23.4 percent of statewide executive offices and 23.8 percent of the seats in state legislatures this year.

Although I find it hard to believe given our current national discussions, I realize that some may still ask why it all matters.

Of course, neither women nor men march in lock step, or agree on every issue. Certainly many men support women-friendly legislation and there are women who vote for anti-woman initiatives. But studies repeatedly show that women, no matter what political party they represent, tend to sponsor and vote for legislation and programs that support women and families in larger percentages than do their male colleagues.

Women do not “misspeak” about rape and its consequences. Women will not fall in line with statements or policies that imply that women are governed by our bodies, rather than our minds.

U.S. Representative Todd Akin (R-MO) and his fellow travelers may be the last gasp of a crumbling patriarchy; I for one certainly hope so. Or they may be better described as part of a larger set of global fundamentalist efforts—of various origins—attempting to control women and their bodies. Maybe it’s some of both. But ‘last gaspers’ and fundamentalists can be equally dangerous and destructive. We cannot turn away in disgust. We cannot fool ourselves that lies and pseudoscience will fade away.

Our strongest weapon in the battles ahead may be the one our foremothers won for us. The 20th century began with women winning the right to vote. The 21st century is the time to fulfill the promise inherent in that victory. More women need to run for office. And RIGHT NOW we ALL need to canvass, phone bank, donate and vote for candidates who will fight for women’s equality. It won’t happen any other way.

Susan McGee Bailey, Ph.D., served as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW), and a Professor of Women’s & Gender Studies and Education at Wellesley College for 25 years. Following college she taught in Asia, Latin America and the United States; experiences that fostered her commitment to gender equitable education.

New BLS Data Confirm Unequal Access to Paid Leave Among U.S. Workers

By Kevin Miller and Caroline Dobuzinskis

Today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) on access to and use of paid leave by American workers. This is the first time the ATUS has included questions on leave-taking among American workers, with a module paid for by the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.

The findings from the 2011 Leave Module of the ATUS reveal that many American workers lack access to paid leave from their jobs, though access varies by worker and occupational characteristics. Overall, 59 percent of workers in the United States have access to paid leave; 4 in 10 American workers lack access to paid leave. This reflects IWPR research analysis that found that 44 million workers in the United States lack access to paid sick leave and that only 58 percent of private sector employees in the U.S. had access to paid sick days in 2010.

Overall, the newly released BLS data on leave access and use by American workers confirm large disparities in access to and use of leave, especially paid leave. Workers with lower wages, Hispanic workers, workers in poorer health, and workers in jobs that put them in direct contact with the public (e.g., sales or hospitality workers) are less likely to have access to leave from their jobs and are more likely to lose pay when they do take leave.

Findings Show Large Gaps in Access to Paid Leave Among U.S. Workers

Men and women have similar rates of access to paid leave, with 60 and 58 percent of male and female workers with access to paid leave, respectively. The reasons for taking leave tend to differ between gender, with more women tending to take leave for illness or medical treatment for themselves or a family member.

Based on educational levels, there are large disparities in access to paid leave. Workers with college degrees are far more likely (72 percent) to have access to paid leave than workers without a high school diploma (35 percent). The BLS data also show large gaps in access between Hispanic and other workers. Hispanic workers are less likely to have access to leave (43 percent) than are non-Hispanic workers (61 percent). White, black, and Asian workers have similar rates of access to paid leave (59, 61, and 62 percent respectively).

Among full-time workers, those in the top quartile of earnings are the most likely to have access to paid leave (83 percent have access), while those in the lowest quartile are less likely (50 percent have access). Seventy-nine percent of workers in the financial industry have access to paid leave, while only 25 percent of those in the leisure and hospitality industries—which include food service—have access to paid leave. Workers in the private sector are less likely to have access to paid leave (57 percent) than are workers in the public sector (76 percent).

Taking Time Off Can Mean Lost Wages for Many Workers

Though over half of workers have access to some kind of paid leave, and 90 percent have access to either paid or unpaid leave, in an average week only 21 percent of workers took leave (including either vacation or sick time) according to the BLS.

Women, who tend to have more caregiving duties for children and older relatives, were slightly more likely than men to take leave from their jobs during an average week (23 percent compared with 20 percent). Of women workers who took leave in an average week, 35 percent did so either to care for their own medical needs, for those of a family member or relative, or to provide elderly care or child care, compared with 25 percent of men who took leave for the same reasons.

Workers who characterized their health as fair or poor were somewhat less likely to take leave in an average week. But those who did were more likely to take unpaid leave compared with those who characterized their health as good. Sixty percent of workers in fair or poor health took unpaid leave, compared with 38 to 39 percent who characterized their health as good, very good, or excellent (most of whom took paid leave). IWPR’s analyses of the costs and benefits of paid sick days in several states and cities nationwide have found that access to paid sick days improves workers’ self-assessed health, reduces costly emergency department visits, and reduces health care costs to private and public insurers.

Reflecting the lack of access to paid leave in many service-oriented jobs, workers in management, business, and financial operations were much less likely to take unpaid leave compared with workers in service occupations (20 percent took unpaid leave compared with 66 percent). Of those workers in the leisure and hospitality industry who took leave in an average week, 86 percent took unpaid leave. Only 13 percent of workers in this industry took paid leave.

Mirroring the inequality in access to paid leave that exists across income levels, workers in the top quartile of earnings are twice as likely to have taken paid leave in an average week (82 percent) compared with workers in the lowest quartile of earnings (40 percent).

These new findings reaffirm the lack of equal access to paid leave that can leave many workers without economic or job security if an illness should arise for themselves or for a family member. Without access to paid leave, many workers simply cannot afford to take time off. Workers who are sometimes forced to work while ill tend to be those who are most likely to come into contact with the public and spread contagious illness. Women, often those caring for family members, tend to be disproportionately impacted because they are more likely to work in part-time jobs and tend to have lower earnings than men.

Visit IWPR’s website for more information on IWPR’s research on paid sick days and the impact on paid sick days legislation on workers and businesses.

Kevin Miller is a Senior Research Associate and Caroline Dobuzinskis is the Communications Manager with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Rallying Together Around Issues Critical to Women and Families at NOW Conference 2012

IWPR staff and interns attended the NOW Conference in June.

By Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) had the opportunity to participate in the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) national conference in Baltimore, Maryland in June. The annual conference is the largest gathering of women’s groups and advocates in the country and attracted several accomplished leaders in women’s policy and advocacy, including Representative Carolyn Maloney, Dr. Bernice “Bunny” Sandler (responsible for the enactment of Title IX), political strategist and MSNBC commentator Krystal Ball, and playwright and women’s advocate Eve Ensler.

By participating in or moderating a number of conference panels and presentations, IWPR researchers and other policy experts facilitated a “Mothers and Caregivers Summit” that took place over two days of the three-day convention. With the country on the steps of a possible care crisis as Baby Boomers begin to age, raising awareness on issues related to mothers and caregivers is particularly timely. This also being an election year, it is a crucial time to shine the spotlight on the importance of economic and family supports for women, who are more likely than men to act as caregivers for children and older relatives.

The conference summit consisted of four panel discussions on topics including the importance of family leave and paid sick days for the well-being of women and their children, trends in women’s employment such as occupational segregation and the gender wage gap, family economic and retirement security, and means to improve access to quality jobs for women and people of color. IWPR staff presentations from the summit can be found on IWPR’s website.

In one of the first panel discussions of the conference, IWPR Research Analyst Claudia Williams and Helen Luryi, Work and Family Policy Associate at the National Partnership for Women and Families, discussed the progress of state-level of paid sick days campaigns across the nation. Williams highlighted the importance of this legislation in reducing contagion, ultimately benefiting employee productivity and reducing health care costs, as found in IWPR’s cost-benefit analyses of paid sick days policies. IWPR has analyzed the impact of a nationwide paid sick days policy on health care costs and employment, as well as the cost-benefits of paid sick days legislation in states and cities considering such laws (including New York State, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Denver, Colorado). Nationwide, access to paid sick days could save approximately $1 billion in health care costs according to a November 2011 report from IWPR.

In discussing other topics such as the gender wage gap, Social Security modernization, unemployment insurance, asset-building, and jobs in the “green” industry, IWPR researchers were joined by other experts such as Dr. Martha Burk, who spoke about her role in the push for paycheck fairness in New Mexico, and Web Phillips of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, who discussed proposed reforms to Social Security and ways in which they would help or harm women and their families.

In May, the NCPSSM, the NOW Foundation, and IWPR released a report that looked at the challenges facing older women and called for affordable changes to modernize Social Security to better support women’s economic security. Recommendations included improving survivor benefits, providing Social Security credits for caregivers, providing a more adequate benefit to those who have spent most of their working lives in low-wage employment, and restoring student benefits to children of disabled or deceased workers until age 22 when the child is attending college/vocational school full time.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann receiving the NOW Woman of Vision award on Saturday, June 30, 2012. Photo courtesy NOW/NOW Foundation.

This year’s NOW conference, titled with the theme “Energize! Organize! Stop the War on Women!” called upon the next generation of young advocacy leaders to speak up on issues important to women. But the conference was also an opportunity to look back on significant accomplishments and achievements. Several women’s leaders were honored for their work, including IWPR’s Dr. Heidi Hartmann, who received the NOW Woman of Vision Award for significant contributions towards improving the lives of women and girls in the United States. The award’s honorees have a strong commitment to women’s issues and have, over time, developed, communicated, and realized their vision by engaging with other leaders in women’s policy and advocacy. “I am deeply honored to be recognized by the National Organization for Women and to have the importance of economic issues for women be given visibility by this award,” said Dr. Hartmann.

IWPR thanks NOW for organizing a successful and engaging conference! We look forward to continuing to energize and inform conversations and dialogues on women’s issues as the year unfolds. Watch for upcoming IWPR research on women and caregiving, as well as on work/family supports, access to paid sick days, and access to quality employment for women and minorities. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to stay informed!

Ann DeMeulenaere Weedon is the Communications Intern with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The Wage Gap: Myths vs. Realities

By Heidi Hartmann

We owe a debt of gratitude to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for pointing out the differing perceptions people have about the gender wage gap. In April, she invited me on her show to set the facts straight on the wage gap and I hope that I helped her to do that

By now, most Americans are likely familiar with the 77 percent figure, meaning that, at the median, women’s wages equal only 77 percent of men’s wages both for full-time, year-round work (in 2010, the most recent year for which data are available). This figure, provided annually by the U.S. Census Bureau, has come under criticism from conservative economists and others for a variety of reasons for the past several decades—so much so, that this simple and accurate figure is now viewed by many media outlets as suspect. One New York City newspaper even refused to allow an op-ed writer to include a number such as this provided by IWPR based upon government data.

On an April 30 broadcast of  the Sunday morning television show, Meet the Press, Ms. Maddow pointed out that another guest on the show, conservative-leaning CNN commentator Alex Castellanos, seemed to deny that men’s and women’s wages are unequal. After first countering that wages were equal, Mr. Castellanos said they were unequal but that was due to good reasons such as women working in fields like science or math, or women taking time off to have children, and so on. Mr. Castellanos was echoing justifications provided by conservative economists over the years to ignore the size of the wage gap by imagining that it is really much smaller than the data show, or that it may reflect women’s preferences—therefore, no government action to end discrimination is necessary.

While often those on opposite sides of an issue agree on facts but disagree on solutions, Ms. Maddow’s point is that, in terms of the wage gap, there exists a major difference in belief about the facts. In such circumstances, it is impossible to come to a compromise and agree upon a solution. Just as conservatives have spent decades challenging the role of government in regulating pollution, banks, or big business, they have spent decades challenging the popular wage gap number, and for a similar reason—to avoid policy changes. Let’s review what conservative economists have been saying.

Some economists challenge the 77 percent figure by pointing out it does not compare women’s and men’s earnings in the same jobs: in other words, the figure implicitly compares truck drivers, who are mostly male, with secretaries, who are mostly female, for example. Yes, the figure does compare women and men across the whole economy, but do we believe women should receive lower pay because they are any less talented, competent, or hard working than men? Given their equal competency, shouldn’t both women and men be able to find jobs in the economy that pay them what they’re worth?

When citing the wage gap, it may be more accurate to say, as President Obama often does, that women earn only 77 percent of what men earn for an equal day’s work (rather than for equal work).

A second set of reasons economists give for challenging the 77 percent figure is that the women and men being compared are not identical. More women than men have likely taken at least a year off from work in the past to take care of children, even if they are working full-time, year-round now. Also, more working women than working men are single parents. More married working fathers than married working mothers have stay-at-home spouses, allowing them to focus on full-time paid work.

Critics who cite these issues suggest it would be more accurate to compare single workers without children in restricted age ranges, where time spent working and work life careers are presumably more similar. But does it make sense to consider only subsets of workers? Shouldn’t women and men expect equal earnings when they provide equal effort and skill on the job whatever their age, marital, or parental status?

Yet another set of economists’ favorite reasons revolves around women’s choices. Perhaps women chose more family-friendly jobs that pay less, for example, because they provide more flexibility in exchange for the lower wages. Interestingly, data about the nature of jobs held by women and men cannot confirm this hypothesis. According to a recent survey IWPR conducted, single mothers have the least flexible jobs and college-educated white men the most flexible jobs.

Ms. Maddow was correct to point out that Mr. Castellanos is denying a reality that many women experience every day, lower pay than they deserve for the work they do. Many economists have been denying this reality for a long time. Let’s hope women’s voices and women’s votes in this election season make it clear that women’s lower wages must be addressed by stronger public policies.

Dr. Heidi Hartmann is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Go to Home Page