01/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Economic Recovery: Fairness for Low-Income Families

Blanca cleans houses. She has four kids ranging in age from five to 13. She has no health insurance, and if she misses a day of work because she is sick she doesn't get paid. She juggles childcare to keep her cleaning jobs. Her sister helps take care of her kids during the day before going to her restaurant job at night. Blanca makes about $1,000 per month.

Blanca is a low-wage worker. She is one of 30 million U.S. residents who are heading families that include 20 million children. 68 percent of low-wage workers are women, and nearly one-third of women in the workforce work in low-wage employment, compared with one-fifth of men in the workforce.

As our legislators consider another economic recovery package for failing corporations to help move us out of a recession and alleviate skyrocketing poverty and unemployment rates, we need to make sure this plan is focused on the economic needs of low-income families and low-wage workers. Already disadvantaged by years of workplace and legislative failures, women and their families face an increasingly insecure future if policies are not adjusted to meet our ever more pressing needs. Any economic recovery package should be sure to address the urgent needs of those who have been most impacted by the crisis, especially low-income women, women of color and their families.

Recent statistics show that in the current economic recession women are losing jobs at twice the rate of men. There has been much said about higher wage workers -- particularly in the financial services and automobile sectors -- losing their jobs. A different type of trickle-down theory applies here. For all the higher wage jobs being lost, there are at least as many lower wage jobs disappearing -- many of them held by women. If they are part-time workers or self-employed, they receive no unemployment insurance.

These are retail salespeople, security guards, education assistants, childcare workers, waitresses, cashiers, fast-food cooks, bartenders, home health aides and housecleaners. Over 20 percent of white workers, 30 percent of African-American workers and 40 percent of Latino workers are members of the low-wage workforce.

These workers are underpaid and work for wages that don't begin to support a basic standard of living. One in four low-wage workers earns less than $8.70 an hour, or $16,704 per year, in jobs that provide few basic benefits such as health care, sick pay, disability pay and paid vacation.

Many women heads-of-household have no safety net. Nearly 37 percent of families headed by single women in California live in poverty, 53 percent of working mothers have no sick leave and one in 10 working women have no health insurance. Women also make up 68 percent of minimum wage workers, making them especially vulnerable to economic turbulence.

Women are not only disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce, they also earn less than men who hold exactly the same job. Today, despite decades of struggle for job access and pay equity, women are paid 77 cents for each dollar a man makes. The disparity is worse for African American women, who earn 62 cents, and Latinas, who earn 53 cents for each dollar a man makes. More than 10 million women are single parents (as compared with 2.5 million single fathers). For them, opting out of the workforce for any reason -- like raising children or pursuing an education -- is not viable.

We need to create a safety net that includes benefits that are easy to access especially during times of economic downturn and that are inclusive of immigrants. Without this, women and our families will sink deeper into poverty and be far less likely to recover from overwhelming threats to economic security -- no matter how much money our legislators move into the corporate sector.

We already know what some of these solutions are. We should pass the Fair Pay Act -- a priority for women's groups -- which removes obstacles to pay-discrimination lawsuits. We should pave the pathway to citizenship for undocumented workers. We should extend the time period for unemployment benefits and make these benefits available to part-time workers (most of them women). We should focus on an infrastructure-building program to create jobs and make sure that there is education and training for women to move into these jobs. There should be set hiring benchmarks for women and people of color. We should include in the recovery package investments beyond infrastructure jobs. While these are good jobs and get money to state and local governments fast, they consist largely of jobs for which men have skills.

Let's consider investing in education or health care as well. We should allow bankruptcy judges to alter repayment terms for mortgages. We should create equal job access and protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. We should focus on greening the economy through jobs that are focused on alternative-energy development. We should provide universal access to health insurance and mandate paid sick days for workers. These are but a few policies that will help all workers -- especially low-wage workers and low-income families.

We will have to organize in our communities to make sure our lawmakers hear us. To rebuild our economic system we need policies that are rooted in fairness and that will address people's real problems with real solutions.

Judy Patrick is President and CEO of the Women's Foundation of California. Surina Khan is Vice President of Programs for the Women's Foundation of California.