Closing the wage gap isn’t simply a matter of doing what’s right; for many families, it is a matter of survival. As it sits now, three in four American families with young children rely on a mother’s earnings, and many women aren’t earning nearly enough. A new analysis from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) finds that regardless of whether mothers are married or single, they have significantly lower earnings than their male counterparts, with a slightly narrower gap for married mothers. The analysis shows that in 2015 married mothers earned 73.3 percent of married fathers’ earnings ($44,000, compared with $60,000), while single mothers earned 70.7 percent of what single fathers earned ($31,100, compared with $44,000).
In the US, married mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners in more than half of families, and more than 15.2 million family households are headed by women. One in three of those families have incomes that fall below the poverty level. According to the UN Women, if the wage gap were eliminated, on average, a working woman in the United States would be able to afford the equivalent of 83 more weeks of food for her family.
She also might have a shot at affording childcare. Right now, childcare for two children exceeds the median annual rent in all 50 states. Not only is childcare more than rent, in many instances, it costs more than college. A recent report from the think tank New America finds that, on average, full-time care for children under the age of four is $9,589 a year, while the average cost of in-state college tuition is $9,410. This means a family earning the median household income would spend one-fifth of its income on childcare. For a single parent earning minimum wage, the percentage is much higher, with childcare accounting for two thirds of their annual income.
If couples with children in the home are struggling as a result of the wage gap, it is even harder for single mothers. According to U.S. Census Bureau, out of about 12 million single parent families in 2016, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Today one in four children under the age of 18 — a total of about 17.2 million — are being raised without a father and almost half (40%) live below the poverty line. Taking the effects of the wage gap even further, over one-third (34.4%) of single mother families were “food insecure,” 13% used food pantries, and one-third spent more than half their income on housing, which is generally considered the threshold for “severe housing cost burden.”
As evidenced from an earlier study from IWPR, female workers who struggle economically often face a steeper climb to prosperity or even security than their male counterparts, and closing the wage gap could slash poverty in half for families. The country’s number of working single mothers who live in poverty would drop from about 30% to 15%, researchers estimate, if they earned on average as much as comparably skilled men.
The White House Fact Sheet on Closing the Gender Wage Gap reminds us that achieving equal pay for equal work isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a family issue. Realizing that for many the situation brought on by the wage gap is critical, the question is, what can we do? According to the National Women’s Law Center, we can:
- Strengthen our equal pay laws so that women are better able to fight back against pay discrimination.
- Build ladders to better paying jobs for women by removing barriers to entry into male-dominated fields.
- Lift up the wages of women in low-wage jobs by raising the minimum wage.
- Increase the availability of high-quality, affordable child care.
- Help prevent caregiver and pregnancy discrimination against women workers.
- Provide fair work schedules, paid family leave, and paid sick days so that workers with caregiving responsibilities are not unfairly disadvantaged.
Together we need to take action, to use the power of our voices, keep the conversation going, point out injustices in our communities and in the workplace, and support legislation. Most importantly we need to join hands with our sisters and unite our voices, our actions, and our strength. That’s how change happens, and how together we can achieve full workplace and wage equality.