03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Feminomics: A Woman's Place - Still in the (Poor) House

From an economic standpoint, will 2010 be the year of the woman? As part of the Roosevelt Institute's ongoing 'Feminomics' series, running on the New Deal 2.0 blog, I was asked to reflect on women's changing roles in the economy. Here's my take on the need to conquer the gender wealth gap.

They used to say things like "a woman's place is in the home." We thought we had that licked.

In the 60s, women fought to get out of the house and into the workforce. (white women that is; most women of color were already low-wage earners). Today, women have not yet achieved income parity, making about 76 cents on the man's dollar. And ironically, not only do women have the right to work, they must go to work. Married couples depend on two incomes, and about half of all households are unmarried, many of those headed by single moms.

We understand income. But little attention is paid to building wealth -- what you own minus what you owe. Savings, homes, businesses, retirement and investment accounts enable a person to weather economic storms, to generate further income and assets, and to give the children a head start.

According to recent research by Mariko Chang, the gender wealth gap far exceeds the income gap. Single women of working age between 18 and 64 have only 36 cents of wealth to the single man's dollar. And for women of color, economic security is non-existent. Single women of each race have less than half the wealth as men of their own race, but due to the racial wealth gap, women of color are at the bottom. In 2004, single white women had around $24,000 in wealth, while African-American women at the median had only $2000 dollars to fall back on. And for Latinas? Nada, zero.

The American myth is that hard work makes you rich. But the work of enslaved people didn't make African-Americans rich. Women's work never made women rich. It is still invisible, undervalued and un/under-paid. For example, dog walkers make a third more than child care workers. Does our society value dogs more than children? Or is it that "women's place" thinking continues to affect women's ability to achieve economic security? Women of color continue to be disproportionately employed doing "women's work," taking care of children and the elderly, working in food service and housekeeping -- occupations that are often without wealth-building benefits such as retirement pensions or health insurance.

Asset building is a woman's issue. And government actions and inactions are what create the mal-distribution of wealth by race and gender we see today. New policies can help poor women build wealth, such as removing asset limits for public benefits, refundable tax credits for dependents, matched savings and retirement accounts, and access to credit for micro-business development. Programs can also be targeted toward those who have worked the hardest and remained the poorest, by creating programs in the communities that were left behind by previous policies that favored white suburbs.

Women don't just need to get what men get. We also need recognition of the personal and social value of women's work. A woman's place should be wherever she wants and needs to be, and that should not put her in the poor house.

This post originally appeared on New Deal 2.0.