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Melody Barnes

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Why Young Americans Should Care About Equal Pay Day

Posted: 04/12/11 10:37 AM ET

When President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, the country was watching Lassie on television, listening to The Beatles on vinyl and paying 22 cents for a loaf of bread - a great deal has happened since the law was signed in 1963. Women now graduate from college as often as men, work in many fields previously closed to them and occupy leadership positions across the nation's workforce. But even with those accomplishments, we have not come far enough. More needs to be done to ensure that our policies address persistent discriminatory employment practices, including unequal pay, so that college graduates entering today's workforce have the pay they deserve.

April 12 marks Equal Pay Day and, unfortunately, pay equity is still an aspiration - not a reality. In 1963, women earned 59 cents for every dollar earned by a man. While that's no longer the case, on average, women still make only about 77 cents for every dollar that men earn and are more likely than men to live in poverty. Even adjusting for variables like education level and time in the workforce, there remains a persistent wage gap between women and men, resulting in innumerable missed opportunities over the course of a woman's lifetime.
And the pay gap isn't just a women's problem, it's a burden on families. In 2010, when women make up nearly half the workforce, two-thirds of American families with children rely on women's wages as a significant portion of the family income. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in American history, when families are struggling to pay their bills and save for the future, pay inequality only deepens that struggle and hampers our nation's ability to fully recover. The last thing our families can afford is to take home less pay because of discrimination.

President Obama understands that different pay for employees based solely on gender is simply wrong. That's why the first bill he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act empowering female employees by restoring basic protections against pay discrimination. As Lilly explains, she not only lost approximately $224,000 in salary due to discrimination but she lost significant amounts more because the lower paychecks were used to calculate her pension and Social Security benefits.

Lilly's story is all too common. Studies indicate that by the time a woman is 25, she is likely to have lost the opportunity to earn thousands of dollars as compared to her male counterpart. That could be a substantial reduction in her student loans or savings to buy a home. If we can equalize pay, by the time a woman is 45, she could earn tens of thousands of dollars more; and by the time she is 65, she could earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than she would in an unequal system. She would no longer have to choose between paying her rent or medical bills; she could invest in a home and better afford her children's education. And that does not account for the retirement savings and benefits she would have earned had she not encountered discrimination - resources that would further reduce the burden to her family and to society. We will all benefit when women are paid their equal share.

President Obama cares deeply about this issue--as a father, as a husband, and as someone who understands how much this issue impacts our nation's economic well-being. That's why the Administration strongly supports passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act that rewards employers who treat their employees fairly, as opposed to those who boost their bottom line by discriminating against women. This important piece of legislation almost made it to the President's desk last year, and we urge Congress to pursue the fight for equal pay.

Until Congress sends President Obama a bill he can sign into law, we're doing all we can to support and empower women and smart employers. The White House convened an Equal Pay Task Force to educate employers and employees about their rights, ensure compliance with equal pay laws and encourage agencies to improve coordination and enforcement efforts at the federal level. The President also created the White House Council on Women and Girls, comprised of Cabinet members and heads of sub-Cabinet agencies; the Council is charged with advancing the rights and needs of women, including equal pay.

In the past four decades, Lassie and The Beatles have faded from the forefront, but women are front and center when it comes to supporting family budgets and our national economy. They're invaluable contributors at work - standing shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues to get the job done - and, when that's the case, they deserve to have a paycheck that reflects a job well-done, not gender bias. Most employers know that, but for those who do not, we need the Paycheck Fairness Act and we need it now.

Melody Barnes is President Obama's Domestic Policy Adviser and the Director of the Domestic Policy Council, which coordinates the domestic policy-making process in the White House.