It's taken too long, but finally we're having a national conversation about income inequality.
President Obama is said to be preparing a State of the Union address that will announce specific measures to address income inequality, and the Democrats are preparing to make economic disparity a defining issue in the 2014 elections.
This week, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress release "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink," which documents how women bear the brunt of the national crisis of financial insecurity. As Maria Shriver writes, "Leave out the women, and you don't have a full and robust economy. Lead with the women, and you do."
But it's not enough to focus on jobs for women -- we need to make sure that these are good jobs. According to the National Women's Law Center:
Between December 2012 and November 2013, 56 percent of women's jobs gains were in five low-wage sectors (retail, leisure and hospitality, temporary help services, home health care services, and nursing and residential care facilities). In contrast, 37 percent of men's job growth was in these sectors. (Gender data are not available for all five sectors for December 2013).
Not only has job growth in recent years been predominantly low-wage, but the jobs with the greatest projected job growth over the next decade are also disproportionately low-wage and female-dominated.
Compare this to the labor force in December 2012, when only 29 percent of women and 24 percent of men were employed in these low-wage sectors.
How long do we have to wait for the wage gap between men and women to be closed? Data from the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimate that at the current pace, it won't be until the year 2058!
That's unacceptable, of course. So what can we do?
A top priority must be increasing the minimum wage. Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers and a woman working full time, year round at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour earns just $14,500 -- nearly $4,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.
If the minimum wage had kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be over $10.70 per hour today.
The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that if the minimum wage were increased to $10.10 in three steps of 95 cents over the next three years, in the third year more than 30 million workers would get a raise -- including 9 million workers earning between $10.10 and $11.05 per hour, who would see their pay increase due to the higher floor set by the new minimum wage. Of the total affected workers, about 17 million (56 percent) are women.
That would be a good start, but let's remember that it's only a start. Women are the sole or primary breadwinners in roughly 40 percent of U.S. households nowadays. They and their families need a livable wage -- a wage that would allow them to save up for a down payment on a house, their kids' college tuition, and their own retirement security. In the richest country in the world, that's not too much to expect.
Of course, we won't end income inequality with a single "silver bullet." For women in particular, Congress needs to take action on a broad range of solutions, from paid sick days and family leave, to child care that's both high-quality and affordable, to equal pay for work of equal value. The Women's Economic Agenda put forward by House Democrats provides an excellent set of initiatives that can and should be advanced, starting now. And because women, far more than men, scale back to part-time work or drop out of the paid labor force altogether to care for children or ill family members, we also need to expand Social Security benefits so the system recognizes the hard work and economic value provided by unpaid caregivers.
Finally, we must confront the web of policies that allowed the top 1 percent of income earners to snatch up 95 percent -- you read that right, 95 percent -- of all the income gains from 2009 to 2012. Part of the answer is to enact a tax policy that calls on those who reap the greatest benefit to pay their fair share in taxes.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus's principles for tax reform are a good place to start. But we also have to rein in obscenely out-of-control CEO salaries. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the ratio of CEO pay to that of their typical employees in 2012 averaged 273. But some CEOs do lots better. CNN Money reports that in 2012, Walmart president Michael Duke's compensation was 796 times its typical employee's poverty wage of $22,100. As a CEO myself, I am appalled. No one is worth that much more than the hard working employees who make their success possible.
I don't expect John Boehner or any of the other Republican leaders in Congress, who remain in the grip of extremist Tea Party ideology to make income inequality a priority this year. But if the Republicans are ready to "dial back the crazy," as one headline recently put it, issues of substance might have a better chance of percolating to the top. Who knows?
I do know that, if and when Congress decides to do something about income inequality, it's essential to keep the challenges faced by women at the forefront. I'm glad that people are talking about income inequality, but you know what they say -- actions speak louder than words.
Tell Congress to get off the dime and do something about income inequality!
Follow Terry O'Neill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Terryoneill