Presented by The Atlantic: Event attended January 15, 2014
Contributed by Samantha Tacon
As the country faces the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, large portions of the American public find themselves in a difficult time of financial stress and unease. The third annual Shriver Report revealed that women today are considered the most economically vulnerable and presented a wide array of issues that directly affect them as well as their families, and in turn, the country. Held on the 50th anniversary of the declaration of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, The Shriver Report Live gathered women and men of all colors, creeds and backgrounds to discuss women's economic challenges and possible solutions.
Today, one in three women are living in poverty or dangling on its edge. Those 42 million women also have 28 million children dependent upon them. Children of poverty-stricken mothers have been shown to be two and a half times more likely to suffer from depression, COPD, or hepatitis as adults. Because two out of three families depend on the wages of working mothers, many women today struggle to balance caregiving and breadwinning in occupations that largely offer no paid sick days. Women still struggle for pay equity, as women are paid 77 cents for every dollar their male counterpart earns on average. In her opening remarks, Maria Shriver highlighted these and other facts and figures, observing that “it’s not an accident, it’s a policy.” Through a combination of interviews, panels, and personal stories, an impressive roster of inspiring leaders and real women identified some of the key ways policy can help women push back against economic gender divides:
- Minimum Wage – Women make up two-thirds of the minimum-wage workforce. Raising the minimum wage is instrumental in bringing women back from the economic brink of poverty. Barbra Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, cited her own undercover investigation of the working poor to demonstrate how such a policy would affect the lives of women on the edge of poverty, who are often forced to make choices between transportation and food, or between healthcare and shelter. It is an increasingly difficult task to support a family on a low-wage job, especially considering that two-thirds of women are the primary or co-provider in their households. Raising the minimum wage can help women endure in this especially difficult economic climate.
- Education – Education is often considered the key to personal development and success. Today, two-thirds of all new jobs require a post-secondary degree. The cost of higher education in the United States is significantly higher than that of the rest of the world, which not only affects global competition, but also affects social mobility. Women with only a high school diploma are three to four times more likely to live in poverty than those who have a college degree. Eduardo Padron, President of Miami Dade College, believes that “a college educated woman disrupts the cycle of poverty.” Making college more affordable will eliminate a major hurdle that keeps women from attending and graduating from universities, and thus securing higher paying jobs. Investing in education affords women the opportunity to develop their talents and combat economic inequality. College programs that allow for more flexibility, such as expedited degrees, can help women maintain their jobs and family responsibilities. Financial literacy education can also aid in understanding proper money management, and boost women’s earnings and savings power.
- Paid Leave and Affordable Childcare – Despite the fact that 96% of single mothers say paid leave is the workplace policy that would help them most, the United States remains the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require employers to provide it. Most working women are forced to decide between taking an unpaid leave, juggling the increasingly difficult task of work and familial duties, or quitting the workforce. Today, the number of women returning to the workforce after giving birth is at a 20 year low. Creating a federal paid-leave package with consideration for child and eldercare could allow women to work within these constraints. Access to affordable and quality childcare will also help women of all incomes maintain their employment while simultaneously providing their children a firm foundation to cultivate a prosperous future.
Creating strong policies that arm women with the proper tools and necessary support to combat economic inequality is key in moving the country forward. Important conversations like the ones had during The Shriver Report Live can lead to real policy change, and foster a new understanding and respect for women in today’s society.