Standing up for women at the brink


During a January 12 Meet the Press segment, Maria Shriver unveiled “The Shriver Report: A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.” Her analysis outlined in graphic detail how dramatically American families, the workplace, and the role of women have changed during recent decades.

We all have a personal stake in the challenges that working women face.

For President Obama and congressional Democrats, our rallying cry has become “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds.” Assuring that every working woman receives the fair pay, adequate pay and family-friendly workplace that will help her and her children succeed are our core objectives.

Paycheck Fairness

American women are now nearly one-half of all American workers outside the home. That is why I was deeply gratified to join Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and our Democratic colleagues as an original co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act (S. 84 / H.R. 377).

The average working woman continues to be paid only 77 cents for every dollar the average man earns for the same work (only 64 cents if she is African American and only 55 cents for the average Latina).

Those disparities are unacceptable. We must reform the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to provide more effective remedies to those who are victims of wage discrimination.

Nearly three out of every four Americans surveyed have expressed support for measures that would better assure equal pay for equal work. Yet, in the year since our legislation to further that goal was first introduced, not a single Republican has signed on in support.

Closing the gender wage gap would cut the poverty rate in half for working women and their families. It would also add nearly half a trillion dollars to the national economy.

America’s working women – and our nation – need reform now.

Perhaps the Shriver Report will help our Republican colleagues better understand the contradiction between platitudes about reducing poverty and their failure to act.

Raising the Minimum Wage

Second, we must face the reality that, in recent decades, it has become far more difficult for women to escape poverty.

The value of the minimum wage (adjusted for inflation) has fallen by nearly one-third since 1968. That fact is why raising the minimum wage is a key component of Democrats’ “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” initiatives.

In March of last year, I signed on as an original co-sponsor when Rep. George Miller and Sen. Tom Harkin introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act (H.R. 1010/S. 460).

Our legislation would increase the minimum wage in three steps over three years – from $7.25 per hour to $10.10 per hour.

We would index future annual increases to inflation – and, thanks to the leadership of Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, we also would raise the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 per hour to $7.07 per hour.

Here is why raising the minimum wage is a key issue for working women, their families and, ultimately, for our entire country.

Women comprise nearly two-thirds of minimum-wage workers in this country. Contrary to popular belief, most are 20 years old or older; and they come from every ethnic group (61.1 percent white, 18.5 percent Hispanic, 14.8 percent Black, and 5.6 percent Asian).

We must act decisively to help them in their struggle to survive.

A single mother with two children, working full-time at the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour earns only $15,080 each year. That annual pay is $4,450 below the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Yet, if and when our legislation becomes law, that same single mother’s annual earnings would increase to roughly $21,000 per year – an increase of more than $5,900. Her family would still be struggling economically, but they no longer would be in poverty.

It is time for Congress to recognize the increasingly important role working women play in our economy and ensure that all women are adequately and fairly compensated for their work.

Increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would be an important first step.

Paid Sick Leave and Family Medical Leave

In a recent nationwide poll, single mothers reported that paid sick days were the number-one policy that could help them. Yet, more than 70 percent of low-wage workers do not receive any paid sick leave – and 96 percent do not have access to paid family leave.

As a moral and practical society, we must minimize these conflicts between employment and parenting. America should move toward assuring paid leave that allows working mothers to care for their families.

Successful Mothers, Successful Children

In the longer term, the future of our society’s children is at the heart of how we respond to “women at the brink.”

The President’s Council of Economic Advisors has determined that, over a 20-year period, only half of low-income Americans now make it out of poverty. As a humane nation, we must do better than that.

Helping working mothers to succeed is central to lifting up their children in life – and to restoring our nation as the land of opportunity for all.

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