Elijah Cummings

Despite being unfair and against the law, far too many women are paid less than men are paid for doing essentially the same jobs for the same employers.

It is reasonable to ask how our laws could allow these inequalities in pay.  After all, pay discrimination violates the federal Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and our civil rights laws.

The short answer is clear.

Due to loopholes and pro-business judicial rulings, achieving legal relief within the fair pay laws that currently are on the books is extraordinarily difficult for the women and their families who are being harmed — even when they have the courage and determination to take their complaints to court.

Democrats have been fighting for this civil rights reform for years.

President Obama reiterated his firm belief that “all women deserve equal pay for equal work,” in his 2015 Proclamation for Women’s History Month.  He is doing everything within his power to address this injustice — signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, creating an Equal Pay Task Force within the Executive Branch, and pushing for fair pay for women within the government and government contracting.

In the Congress, Democratic women (including, most notably, Senators Barbara Mikulski and Elizabeth Warren and Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Rosa DeLauro) have led the legislative efforts on multiple occasions during the last six years to pass a Paycheck Fairness Act.

This reform would give working women a more effective and less burdensome legal forum for demanding fair and equal pay for their work.

I have been proud to add my voice as a leading co-sponsor on each occasion, but our Republican colleagues have blocked these efforts every time.

Yet, this should not be a partisan issue.  Working families, Republican and Democrats alike, are suffering from the disparities in women’s pay.

In light of Republican control of the Congress and the past Republican opposition to paycheck fairness, it is unlikely that this Congress will adopt meaningful reforms without a national demand by Republicans and Democrats alike.

To achieve this goal, we must make our case to the American people.  Here are some of the key facts.

As the White House has repeatedly pointed out, on average, full-time working women earn only about 77 percent of their male counterparts’ earnings overall.

Racial and ethnic disparities in compensation are even more glaring.  When compared to each dollar earned by Caucasian men doing the same job with the same qualifications, African-American women earn only 64 cents and Latina women earn only 56 cents.

This is not to say that women of color have been making no progress in pay equity over time.  However, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has found that inflation-adjusted earnings for Caucasian women increased by 31 percent between 1979 and 2012 — while the earnings for Black and Latina women rose during that period by only 20 and 13 percent, respectively.

Conservatives may argue with the details of these federal statistics.  For example, the U.S. Department of Labor’s wage data for last year suggests that, over all, America’s working women earned 82 cents for every dollar that our men earned.

Yet, the extent to which these recent figures demonstrate significant progress for working women during our economic recovery — or, in the alternative, reflect greater difficulty for working men —remains unclear.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has found, for example, that during the last 30 years, men’s real earnings have remained essentially the same while women’s have grown – especially in the 1980s and 1990s.

Since the early 2000s, however, both women’s earnings and men’s have stagnated.

As I have previously reported, Sen. Warren and I are working together on a “Middle Class Prosperity Project” in which we have enlisted the expertise of world-class economic experts to examine the suppression of American wages – for women and men alike.

Overall, worker productivity has increased to historic levels while wages have remained flat, corporate profits have skyrocketed, and our entire economy (driven by lowered consumer demand) has suffered as a result.

Gender-based wage discrimination may not be the dominant force driving this overall wage stagnation.  Yet, there are good reasons to believe that pay inequity is a significant negative factor.

Women, after all, are now one-half of our national labor force — and, increasingly, they are the primary bread winners for their families.

This is why everyone (women and men, the struggling and affluent alike) has a personal interest in forging a more sustainable national economy in which gender-based pay discrimination is ended — now, not in the distant future.

I am convinced that our nation has the capability to move toward a better, more equitable economy for everyone.  Despite the past resistance of our Republican colleagues, I remain confident that an educated American public will see the wisdom of our reforms and help us succeed.

There is a better way — a more American way.

As President Obama observed during his Women’s History 2015 Proclamation:

“Equal pay for equal work — it’s not that complicated.”

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.