Today, Aug. 26, is Women’s Equality Day. Are women equal now, 94 years after the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote?
Let facts be submitted to a candid world.
Beating up on minimum wage workers is a politically acceptable form of domestic abuse. Six in 10 of Maine’s minimum wage workers are women. Among female minimum wage workers, 75 percent of those over age16 and 62 percent of them over age 25 do not have a partner’s or spouse’s income to supplement their meager earnings.
With the Maine minimum wage a whole 25 cents above the federal minimum wage ($7.50 per hour Maine, $7.25 per hour federal), Mainers working full time at the minimum wage earn $4,000 annually less than the poverty level for a family of three.
Imagine what your life would be like if you were trying to live on $15,600 per year (before taxes), while raising two children. Raising the minimum wage has enormous positive consequences for the wider economy. Lower-income earners spend their wages more immediately, more completely, and more locally than do higher-income earners.
Tax cuts for the rich, and corporate giveaways don’t hold a candle to the economic stimulus created by putting more income into the hands of the women and men at the bottom of the wage ladder.
With women workers so heavily concentrated in low-wage economic sectors, they rarely earn paid sick days, not even one per year. Not even after decades in the same job with the same boss.
There are 180,000 such workers in Maine. So when one of these 180,000 workers gets sick, or when one of their dependents (child, spouse, parent) falls ill, they (mostly women) have to choose between work and health. Choose work when you’re sick and you create a public health problem. Choose work when a dependent’s sick and risk having them get sicker. Send a sick kid to school and there’s a public health problem.
All of these choices are bad for everyone. Even for the boss.
Firms that don’t let workers accrue paid sick days think they’re saving money. Wrong. It’s penny-wise and pound-foolish. The cost of allowing low-wage workers to accrue paid sick days costs a measly 19 cents per hour per worker (or $6.32 per worker per week) or $56 million per year.
At same time, firms will see savings – from reduced turnover, increased productivity, and reduced contagions – of $93 million per year. In the aggregate, Maine businesses would see revenues increase by $37 million if they allowed workers to earn paid sick days.
Nearly 60,000 Maine children are enrolled in the National School Lunch Program each academic year. But only 10,000 kids receive free meals when school’s not in session. Summer’s a bummer for those 50,000 kids. Because Maine is a poor state, and a state with high unemployment, the number of us enrolled in the SNAP program is high: 19 percent in Maine (roughly 248,000 individuals) compared to 15 percent nationally. Raising women’s incomes will go a long way to reducing child hunger.
Here’s an equality that we didn’t wish for: women and children comprise half of the homeless in the United States. More disturbing, domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness with more than 60 percent of all homeless women citing abuse from an intimate partner as the immediate cause of their homelessness.
In Maine homelessness is increasing, even though it is declining nationally. In Portland, homelessness among families increased 19 percent. The city’s shelters are overflowing.
Education – especially higher education– plays a central role in gender equality. That’s because women with college degrees do so much better in the labor market.
Women with four-year college degrees have median weekly earnings of $930, while men with comparable degrees earn $1,199. That’s a wage gap of 22.5 percent.
But women with associate degrees or some college earn just $682 per week, while men earn $880, and men with just high school diplomas earn $720. It takes a BA to get ahead of men, so getting that college degree is a critical component of income equality.
Today is Women’s Equality Day. Enjoy it. Women can vote, drive a car, buy a house, get a credit card.
Thank you, activists. Women’s equality in Maine is a good deal for everyone. So let’s get to work.
Susan Feiner is a professor of economics and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at: