In the last few weeks, woman’s issues have received increased attention in election conversations. What began as a question about equal work for equal pay turned into “binders full of women”; meanwhile conversations about rape and “God’s will” garnered headlines. Women have become the hot new trending voting block, as Election Day nears. Even though the gender wage debate lost its focus as people chose to focus on a poor use of words from Romney, it remains a serious issue. Income inequality is more than just a woman’s issue; it is also about fairness, equal opportunity, and family.
At its core, this is about equal opportunity for women. Equal opportunity isn’t just about more job opportunities and flexible scheduling, as Romney mentioned during the presidential debates. Equal opportunity is also having the opportunity to earn the same income as men who work the same job. Without equal pay, there is no equal opportunity. A recent study shows that even before family is introduced into the equation, the gap still exists. Within one year of graduation, women are already paid only 82% of their male counterparts. This puts women behind men from the start in paying off college debt, building assets, and saving for the future.
This issue isn’t just about women, though, it’s also about families. When working mothers are paid less, it also impacts their children. As the cost of childcare continues to rise, single mothers are at a disadvantage. The higher cost of childcare will continue to be an issue as the number of working mothers grow, and their paychecks don’t grow at the same rate. When you combine income inequality with increasing childcare costs, these families have less disposable income, which means just like at the beginning of their careers, these mothers are at a disadvantage in building assets, savings, and paying off student debt. This leads to a gender wealth gap that impacts all women, but produces a larger disparity for minority women as evidenced in a study by the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
With all the attention given to the issue lately, very few, if any, solutions have been produced. Katherine Fenton, who posed the question in the town hall debate, feels neither participant answered her question. I think she is correct. While the focus has been Mitt Romney for his response, no one is holding President Obama’s feet to the fire. While the Lilly Ledbetter law was a great step, it has done nothing to end the wage disparity. The gap sits in the same place it was when the law was signed.
So what are some solutions to the issue? The Nation magazine has an interesting article highlighting seven steps to close the gap. That may be 3 steps to many, in my opinion. Four of the points they highlight I believe are the real key. We need to: 1) end salary secrecy, so the Lilly Ledbetter law can be better utilized; 2) raise the minimum wage since two-thirds of the earners are women; 3) pass family leave policies ending the notion that only mothers need special provisions and putting a bigger focus on families, and 4) increase childcare support since the rising costs are a barrier to wealth building. By enacting these solutions, we not only address an issue that impacts women, but we also get to the larger issues of fairness, equal opportunity, and family. After all, both parties care about family values right?