Part 6: The Color of Money

This is the last post in the Exploring Feminist Motherhood series and was inspired by reading Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself by Amy Richards. This was the second selection of the Sin City Siren Book Club.

Here’s a question for the stay-at-home parents out there: If you made as much money (or more) as your partner does, would you still be the one who is staying at home?

At my house, the answer would be no. Don’t get me wrong! I love my baby! I enjoy spending time with her. But I don’t enjoy the drudgery and monotony of the stay-at-home wife. I married a feminist man who is comfortable in his own identity. If our earning potential was reversed and I could bring home a better, more stable income than him? He’d be celebrating the fact that he could stay at home with our daughter every day! And this is not to say that he doesn’t love his work. We just have different needs and expectations from our work. I am a writer and that doesn’t stop when I’m on the floor teaching my baby colors with her blocks. (Even if it means I have no time to write until 1 a.m.) My husband is a manager in a large company. He loves his job, but it doesn’t define him the way that I derive personal identity from my work. And yet, I’m the one at home and he’s the one punching a clock.

I’m willing to bet that our family is not unique. And if we had true pay equity in America, I believe we’d have more families living a more fulfilled existence. Not only that, but if we had pay equity we’d see fewer people needing public assistance programs, like welfare and Medicaid. And I think it would lead to safer, healthier communities, too. Why is that? Because the people who need those services the most — typically women — are underpaid and typically clustered in career-ghettos, further pushing down their economic value.

Need examples? No problem!

In career fields that are traditionally dominated by female workers, wages are lower than those dominated by male workers. Case-in-point (pdf): Teachers, nurses, retail workers and non-profit employees — fields dominated by women (and usually non-white women) — make a lot less money for their work than engineers, doctors and CEOs — fields dominated by men (and usually white men). Our patriarchal economic structure validates male-dominated industries with higher earning potential.

And I’m not the only one who thinks this. Here’s what the National Committee on Pay Equity says:

The wage gap exists, in part, because many women and people of color are still segregated into a few low-paying occupations. More than half of all women workers hold sales, clerical and service jobs. Studies show that the more an occupation is dominated by women or people of color, the less it pays. Part of the wage gap results from differences in education, experience or time in the workforce. But a significant portion cannot be explained by any of those factors; it is attributable to discrimination. In other words, certain jobs pay less because they are held by women and people of color.

Richards weighs in on this issue in her book, too:

The wage disparity also contributes to the imbalance [between men and women]. Men’s careers are often prioritized above women’s, simply because men are still likely to earn more.

The simple fact is that equal pay = equal opportunity. And I’m not just talking about 77 cents on the dollar women make compared to men’s wages overall (according to 2009 data from NCPE). Although, that would be a good place to start!

Indeed, Richards cites a 2000 study which suggested that the wage gap between men and women was closer to only 3%. But that was of full-time workers between the ages of 21 and 35 who lived alone. The study made no attempt to factor in the economic impact of parenthood and how it affects the earning potential of men and women differently.

The headlines led us to believe that the gap was practically nonexistent, but upon closer inspection, this was true only if we didn’t account for the time women took off for childbirth and child rearing. Women are economically punished for giving birth, so much so that they are unlikely to recover economically over their entire lifetime.

Richards backs this up with statistics on maternity leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which could be used by mothers or fathers, but at a great lifetime earnings cost:

As a result, 78 percent of Americans can’t afford to take the family or medical leave they need. Of those who are theoretically eligible for these benefits, 43 percent earn less than $20,000. The FMLA has also compounded the problem for women: mothers who take off a year pay a 32 percent penalty over the next fifteen years — in lost wages and seniority — contributing to their already second-class situation. One result of the time that women take away from work to have and rear children is that most women receive less Social Security, even if they worked their entire adult lives. … Because most employees aren’t paid while they are on maternity leave, no contributions go into their Social Security account from either the employee or employer during this time.

So just by virtue of being a woman, you’re behind the eight-ball when it comes to earning potential! How could this not impact how families make decisions regarding childcare and whether one parent should stay-at-home? Let alone any other issues!

As I’ve shared before, I chose to stay at home with my baby because the economic downturn (and evolution of the publishing industry) has dramatically impacted my earning potential as a freelance writer and activist. My income is not consistent and doesn’t come with any benefits such as health insurance. Meanwhile, my husband is a mechanical engineer in a management position with a good company with good benefits. Let’s face it, it was really a no-brainer when it came down to the math of the decision. But if we were able to make the decision on different criteria, I think it would have played out differently. And my daughter would be just as happy and fulfilled!

But pay equity isn’t just about personal happiness! Pay equity really could ease the burden on our societal safety net programs. If we eradicated the wage-ghetto of certain industries, that would make a huge difference in the lives of not just women but their families, too.

And if women, particularly black and Hispanic women, had earning potential equal to (white) men, it would have a huge impact in our communities! For instance, studies show that eating dinner together as a family has a huge impact on teens — leading to less likelihood of smoking, drinking, doing drugs, depression, eating disorders and contemplating suicide. But it’s pretty hard to have that daily family dinner when a parent has to work more than one job to put food on the table. So, a mother (or grandmother) who didn’t have to work more hours to make the same pay as a man might get that time to spend with her family. And if that family time leads to happier, healthier, more well-adjusted kids? Then maybe you’ll see less youth crime on the streets. Win-win, right? I’m not saying it would end all youth crime, but it couldn’t hurt! And that’s just one aspect of how wage equity could help our communities be stronger, healthier and safer!

You want another argument for pay equity? It might lead to less unintended pregnancies.

Women are not just clustered in low-paying jobs; those jobs are also less likely to have health insurance. According to the National Network of Abortion Funds, a woman working at a low-wage job earns approximately $1,000 a month and that must go to pay for food, shelter and necessities. Without access to affordable health care and affordable birth control, you are going to have more unintended pregnancies. In fact, half of all pregnancies in America are unintended. (About 4 in 10 of these end in abortion.) It’s no surprise that there is a higher rate of sterilization among Hispanic and black women. Those are communities under-served by affordable health care and who also are greatly impacted by pay inequality. Sterilization may feel like their only hope.

Indeed, black families, and therefore our communities, are hit particularly hard by pay inequality, according to NCPE:

Black women account for 30% of all female-headed families in the U.S. They have a median income of $18,244 annually, while families headed by white males (no wife present) have a median income of $39,240.

But with pay equity there could be more options. I’m not saying that if we had pay equity there would never be another unintended pregnancy. But I am willing to bet that there would be far fewer. At the very least, women in low-income jobs might feel like they had more control over their reproductive health care and family planning. And that’s a win for everyone.

I truly believe that pay equity is the single most important fight for the feminist movement. I think it could do amazing things for our communities by giving individuals and therefore families more options, more stability and more security. This would have a positive impact on people’s lives in terms of their health care options, their reproductive choices, their choice of careers, and even their (true) choice to stay home with the kids and much more. I feel confident that if there was pay equity our communities would be stronger and healthier in so many ways. Indeed, sometimes I feel like it’s a shame that I and so many other feminists have to spend so much time defending our reproductive rights that we can’t focus on an issue that could help so many more facets of our lives. But don’t worry, I won’t stop fighting for reproductive justice, too!

This is part of the Exploring Feminist Motherhood series. See more from the series in these post on the biological clock, prochoice motherhood, childbirth, and triggers for sexual violence survivors.

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