Equal Pay Day: It's Time to Close the Earnings Gap

Today is Equal Pay Day, the day on which women's annual earnings catch up with what men made in the previous year. The extra fourteen weeks that women must work to equal the earnings of men is a symbolic reminder of a particular kind of income inequality, one that has been strikingly neglected in the much of the recent discussions on economic disparity facing middle America and the 99 percent.

But without thinking about the fact that women earn 77 cents for every dollar made by their male counterparts, our understanding of the problem of income inequality -- and its solution -- is incomplete. The drama of today's rising family income inequality must be twinned with the old-fashioned income inequality of unequal pay for the work that women do.

Most recent news stories have downplayed the problem of women's low wages in analyzing the problem of income inequality. Timothy Noah, in his generally insightful 2010 series on rising inequality for Slate, claimed that women largely "absented themselves" from the "great divergence" in incomes, arguing that women's gains in wages relative to men's made them largely irrelevant to growing income inequality. More recently, panic has focused on new studies showing the shrinking wages of men with high-school educations. Yet, little has been said about a new report by Bloomberg news service. Their March analysis of 2010 census data shows women still earning less than men in every single of the major 265 occupations but one -- personal service.

Until the full history of the intertwined realities of women's earnings and income inequality is part of the debate, our understanding of the problem will remain distorted and the solutions we devise will come up short.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of myth to debunk before we can even start.

The story about income inequality is surprisingly lopsided. A golden age in the decades after World War II, so the story goes, shrank the gulf between richest and poorest American families. This is true, but partial at best. The years of declining income inequality had their own hidden inequities. Female wage earning remained largely ghettoized and low paid even as the number of married women workers nearly tripled. Men were presumed to earn a family wage, and their wages rose strikingly. This "golden age" depended on an unequal pay structure. Male privilege in the workplace for good and growing wages obscured the hidden secondary earnings of female workers that helped move family income up the economic ladder.

Women's hidden contributions became suddenly visible in the 1980s. Stagnating economic growth in the 1970s and the severe downturn of the early 1980s transformed family earning. Women nearly doubled their hours of work relative to men from 1970 to 2000. Since 1973, married families without a wife in the labor force have seen no income growth. Two earners became the norm in married households, and the presumed necessity for middle-class well-being. Rising household inequality was thus checked, in some measure, by American women's revolutionary turn to paid labor.

If this were all to the story of mothers and wives' additions to family pocketbooks, we could once again, conveniently, push them to the margins in today's debate about income inequality. Theirs is a story of success after all.

Yet, this is still not the full story of inequality. The bonus that women's added hours of labor bought disguised the unequal rewards for their efforts. The historic wage inequality that continues to this day helped lock rising income inequality into place. We are now staring down the reality that women's second-class position in the labor market keeps alive the problem of the gaping divide in incomes. As we look to the future, women dominate the jobs where the greatest employment growth will occur in coming years. Yet, the vast majority of these jobs -- nursing aides, home health aides, child care workers, salespersons, to name a few -- pay in the lowest rung of government rankings of occupations.

With single-parent households headed by women now accounting for 25 percent of American households, systematically low wages earned by women will only compound income inequality. Even where there is a second wage-earner, that the bottom 40 percent of American families depend on women's breadwinning guarantees continued struggles for these households to make any upward headway as long as women routinely make less than men. Those already in the middle, where wives' earnings outpace their husbands' forty percent of the time -- households with nurses and bus drivers, medical technicians and cable repairmen -- will run in place, at best, if women's jobs don't pay more.

To be sure, many college-educated women, often partnered to similarly educated men, have been among those who have risen into the upper income reaches. Yet, of the top twenty occupations for women in 2008, only two require degrees beyond high school -- nurses and school teachers -- neither of which fall in the high earning category of possible professions. Moreover, as economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn have shown, the gender wage gap cannot be dismissed simply as women's "choice" for lower paid professions. Whether at the high or low end of the pay spectrum, women's compensation lags behind men's. Neither occupation nor experience alone explain the persistent earnings divide.

For many years more earnings and more hours of work by women kept most American families from sliding further down the income inequality ladder. Women's rising earnings cushioned the blow and changed the family calculus.

But today we are at a new juncture. The old-fashioned kind of income inequality that still keeps women earning less than men on average holds families back, and perpetuates the gulf between the 1 percent and the 99 percent. Closing the earnings gap between men and women is one essential step to any serious solution to the problem of income inequality.