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Valerie Young's picture

I spend more time than I’d like talking policy with people who will never in a million years agree with me.  I suppose that’s an occupational hazard in my line of work.  Sticking up for a position is no way to avoid conflict, but I’ve learned to live with disagreement, listen to contrary opinions, say my piece and go my own way. I believe most of us already have our minds made up, not on the basis of accurate data, or solid research and analysis, but something more personal. We see our surroundings through a swirl of impressions, observations, our individual experiences and bits of information. We push them together in a way that makes sense, and that becomes our world view. We’re likely to hold on to that view, even in the face of contrary information. We are far more likely to discard that which doesn’t fit into the mental picture we’ve made then we are to modify the working model in our head that we walk around with every day. It saves us time and effort, applying one set of beliefs over and over again, making unnecessary a deeper, more thorough assessment of individual bits of information as they occur. That would just be too be exhausting.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

From my experience, admitting to a pay gap based on gender is something many people don’t want to do. Of course, you could focus on any number of inequities to show gender discrimination, but employment compensation always seems to come up first, as if it’s the easiest issue to get your mind around. If a person can find a reason to explain away the pay gap, very quickly he or she will decide that there is no pay gap, so gender discrimination doesn’t exist and the conversation ends right there. No injustice is being committed, really, so therefore no action is needed. More particularly, they don’t need to change their thinking, or their behavior, or how they feel about anything. We can all go on just as we are, in the reassuring familiarity of the status quo. So I’m hanging up the pay gap, at least for awhile, as a way of persuading that change is needed and the status quo has got to go! There’s lots of other evidence that men and women are  not similarly situated in our society besides comparing their wages – you could consider the percentage of men and women in government and leadership positions, for instance, or in the upper echelons of business, or academia. Or you could look at the opposite end of the scale, at poverty rates.

The U.S. Census Bureau has obligingly unleashed a new round of data about income and the economy. Even though the recession ended four years ago, most people are making less than they were before it started. Household incomes have retreated to the point they were at in the late 1990′s, except for a very, very few at the top. The poverty rate is holding steady at 15 percent. Economic security didn’t get any better in 2012, but it didn’t get any worse, either. But not getting any worse, considering how bad things are, is little comfort.

In the 50 years since poverty has been tracked, women have had a higher poverty rate than men every single year. The numbers for 2012 deserve a hard look:

  • 1 out of every 7 women is poor.
  • A woman in 2012 was 31 times more likely to be poor than a man.
  • Across all age groups, 58 percent of all poor adults are women.
  • Women over 65 are 67 percent more likely to be poor than men of the same age, as older women hit the cumulative effect of a lifetime of lower wages, more caregiving, (and thus more years out of the workforce), smaller Social Security benefits, and more meager (or non-existent) pensions.

The chasm between men’s and women’s economic status is hard to argue with. Such a disparity is much harder to explain away. But here’s the kicker – the number that will keep me up tonight – single mothers are 81 percent more likely to be poor than single fathers. Being a mother makes you financially vulnerable much, much more than being a father. It’s not just the fact of parenthood. It’s motherhood. If so many single mothers are so much more likely to be living in poverty, you just can’t say it is due to a lifestyle choice, her major in college, a lack of financial discipline, individual character flaws, or any other cause. All women, all mothers, are laboring under some extra weight in our culture – those burdens become much more clear when you whittle down the variable factors to gender and parental status.

Lots of people say we no longer need feminism. Women are more likely to graduate from college than men, and for women without children, the pay gap has shrunk. But women are more likely to be poor, and most women still become mothers. Their poverty is much deeper if they are parenting alone. You can say the pay gap is a myth, as fantastical as the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus.  But there is no magic wand to make women’s poverty disappear.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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