04/23/2008 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recession Takes a Toll on America's Women

Every American has been hit by the current economic recession in one way or another -- home foreclosures, lost jobs, and rising costs of food, gas, and health care. But now it's becoming clear that the recession is affecting one group particularly hard -- women.

Last week the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee released a report [PDF] that found America's women are facing a perfect storm of economic risk. It found:

In contrast to previous recessions, in which women have typically fared somewhat better than men, this recession is hitting women harder than men. They are suffering more job losses and larger reductions in wages than the general population.

Like all workers, women are suffering from falling wages, rising prices, job fears, and housing troubles. But the effects of the recession on women have been more severe. The unemployment rate among women is rising faster than among men. Women's wages fell six times the rate of men's wages last year.

The housing crisis has also had a disproportionate effect on women. Despite their better overall credit scores, women are over 30 percent more likely to have expensive subprime loans, and are therefore much more likely to face foreclosure. Not surprisingly, many women are falling into bankruptcy at alarming rates. Single women, including those with children, account for 40 percent of all bankruptcies.

Making the problem worse, their current economic troubles are piling on top of the longstanding discrimination that women face in the workplace. Despite our equal pay laws, women earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and have lower savings, fewer assets, and smaller pensions. Unmarried women in the United States have, on average, less than half the net worth of unmarried men.

Together, these problems have put many American women on the verge of financial ruin, and it will be very difficult for them to recover. That's why Congress must take decisive action to help working families -- and women in particular -- cope with the troubled economy and create new opportunities for the future.

To start, we must make it clear there must be zero tolerance in the United States for pay discrimination. When women earn less than men, it makes them more vulnerable to economic downturns. To ease this burden, the Senate will act this week on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, an important bill to help them hold their employers accountable for pay discrimination.

A Supreme Court decision last May reversed decades of established law guaranteeing equal pay for equal work. Workers who have been illegally paid less have just 180 days from the discriminatory pay-setting decision to file a claim for the back pay they deserve. Such a requirement is patently unfair, since workers often do not find out for many months or years that their pay is too low.

The Fair Pay Restoration Act corrects this unfair ruling and protects millions of American workers from pay discrimination. You can help us pass this needed legislation by signing my petition calling for equal pay for equal work.

In addition to combating discrimination, we must also strengthen our nation's economic safety net to deal with the modern reality of women's lives and careers.

The unemployment insurance system, for example, does not live up to its promise for many women. Because of outdated eligibility requirements, only one-third of unemployed women receive benefits, although almost all workers pay into the system. It's essential to make sure that all unemployed men and women receive the benefits they deserve. Dollar-for-dollar, it's one of the most potent forms of stimulus for our economy.

Congress must amend current law to reflect the fact that women shoulder by far the greatest responsibility for child and family care. In these difficult economic times, few women can afford to lose a day's wages -- or even their jobs -- to stay at home with a sick child. But many women face that impossible choice every day, since nearly half of private-sector workers don't have even one paid sick day. The Healthy Families Act -- which is currently pending in the Senate -- would change that by guaranteeing seven paid sick days a year for most American workers.

We as a nation can get through this recession. But to do so, we must make sure that the livelihoods of all Americans -- particularly women -- are protected by sound laws and policies. With the economy so bleak today, now is the time for strong economic leadership by Congress to give hope and opportunity to all our nation's working families.