Opinion

On Equal Pay Day, giant roadblocks still confront American women

FILE photo - In this April 6, 2016, file photo, fans stand behind a large sign for equal pay for the women's soccer team during an international friendly soccer match between the United States and Colombia at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. The World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Report released on Oct. 25, 2016, found that the global gender pay gap will not be closed for another 170 years if current trends continue. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)
FILE photo - In this April 6, 2016, file photo, fans stand behind a large sign for equal pay for the women's soccer team during an international friendly soccer match between the United States and Colombia at Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford, Conn. The World Economic Forum's annual Global Gender Gap Report released on Oct. 25, 2016, found that the global gender pay gap will not be closed for another 170 years if current trends continue. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File) AP

Men and women doing the same job over the same time period should be paid equally. But in the United States, women on average don’t earn the equivalent of their male counterparts, forcing them to work longer and harder to earn what white men make doing the same job.

The recent attacks on women’s health care, including President Trump’s efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, roll back the no-cost birth-control provision, prioritize abstinence-only sex education in the budget, and defund Planned Parenthood create even more barriers to equal pay, ensuring that women won’t reach economic equality anytime soon.

Every year, Equal Pay Day marks the day beyond one year that women would have to work to catch up with what white men earned the previous calendar year. Women in the United States would have to work until Tuesday, April 10, of this year to receive the same 2017 salary that white men earned last year because of the gender pay gap.

North Carolina women on average lose $412,640 over the course of a lifetime because of the wage gap that leaves women earning just 86 cents for every dollar white men earn. That means women in North Carolina would have to work until age 70 to make what white men have made by the time they are just 60 years old. North Carolina’s Black and Latina women would have to work well into their 80s to make what white men by age 60 since they face an even bigger wage gap because of racial inequity.

But race and gender aren’t the only factors driving the gender pay gap. Motherhood is a reason why women face persistent disparity. In fact, the gender pay gap starts to emerge mainly among women in their 20’s and 30’s, prime child-bearing years and women who are mothers earn even less compared to white men than women overall. This is a particular challenge for Black and Latina women, who not only earn less than white women and white men but are more likely to be raising children as single parents.

In North Carolina, more than 500,000 households are headed by women. Single-parent households led by women are more likely to face poverty that is often compounded by lack of health care coverage, the high cost of child care and lack of flexible work hours and paid family leave in low-wage occupations dominated by women of color.

Motherhood tends to lower salaries and increase the wage gap across all income groups and races, even among women who continue to work the same hours after they have children. Research shows that employers tend to perceive women as less committed to their jobs once they have children, resulting in a “penalty” for women — a 4 percent decrease in pay for each child — while at the same time fatherhood actually results in 6 percent higher pay for fathers.

Having children lowers pay for women, but the timing of those children also matters. The earlier women have children, the more damage motherhood can do to economic outcomes including lifetime earnings. Teen mothers are less likely to finish high school, less likely to attend college and more likely to be in low-wage jobs with significantly lower lifetime earnings than college-educated women and men.

Teen pregnancy rates are higher in the United States than any other industrialized country despite progress in recent years. Although comprehensive medically accurate sex-education and access to birth control have been effective in reducing teen pregnancy, President Trump is committed to funding abstinence-only sex education to reduce teen pregnancy despite a lack of evidence that it has any effect.

Without legislative action, the wage gap in North Carolina is not expected to close until the second half of the 21st Century but, given the war against women’s health care and reproductive rights that President Trump and GOP are waging at the federal level, we could be looking at an even longer timeline to end inequality. Persistent efforts to weaken, dismantle and repeal the ACA and the quest to defund Planned Parenthood, the only provider of health care for men and women in many rural and underserved communities impact women’s ability to earn equal pay because it directly impacts their ability to manage how many children they have and when to have them.

Already, President Trump has rolled back the no-cost birth control rule under the ACA that requires insurance to provide contraceptives, a key tool in family planning that has helped 55 million women save $1.4 billion in 2013 alone. Less access to affordable birth control means more unexpected pregnancies that then, in turn, impact women’s earnings.

Access to abortion is another fundamental tool for women in determining their own economic security. Nearly two-thirds of women who have abortions already have children and more than two-thirds are low-income or poor. Three-fourths of women cite the high cost of raising a child and worry that a baby would interfere with work or school as main reasons for terminating the pregnancy. Abortion rights face new dangers because of President Trump’s appointment of Supreme Court Justice Gorsuch, an opponent of legal abortion. Under his leadership and that of Vice President Pence, who wants to end abortion in our lifetimes, anti-abortion leaders have been emboldened and health care providers have been given more latitude to deny abortion services based on their religious or moral views rather than medical rationale or the decision of the patient.

Equal pay and access to health care and the full range of reproductive health care options go hand in hand when it comes to achieving equity for women, especially Black and Latina women who already have the least access to abortion, reproductive health care and good jobs. Not only have our current political leaders done nothing to advance equal pay, but they are taking women backward towards greater inequity by attacking health care and abortion access that women depend on for fundamental economic security in today’s economy. As an African-American woman with two school-age daughters, I can’t let that happen. None of us can.

Gloria De Los Santos directs Action NC‘s Stand With Women Campaign.

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