Politics of Poverty

Oh, hey, it’s Equal Pay Day–again

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gender wage gap
A worker at a Dairy Queen in Manhattan. Women account for two-thirds of the tipped wage workforce; the federal tipped minimum wage has been $2.13 since 1991. Photo: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Here we go again, the date when we notice that the gender wage gap in the US is still hanging around. As we call it out this year on March 15, let’s ask why it’s so stubborn–and what the heck we can do about it.

I think about work a lot—as in, how human beings do labor with their minds and bodies. We’re pretty intriguing animals. We plant and harvest crops, construct bridges and roads, knit sweaters, write books, design games. How we use our time is the foundation not just of our economy, but our cultures, religions, societies.

I think about humans doing work for me, too, as I sit here at the computer. The people at the Trader Joe’s down the street, stocking the shelves and dealing with customers; the people in the processing plants, trimming the fat off chickens, freezing pizzas, making yogurt; and the people in the fields, picking blueberries and bananas and mangoes.

And I am stumped. How is it that our economic calculus so deeply undervalues and undercompensates all that work—jobs that are, I have to say, so much more fundamental to the running of our systems than is mine? All the bloggers could evaporate tomorrow, and I’d still have a refrigerator full of blueberries and yogurt.

Along with service at the local pub, care for my elderly mother at the facility where she lives, and customer service at the bank—all jobs that require a lot of effort for paltry wages.

And, jobs that are disproportionately done by women; and that pay less than “men’s work” jobs. Which accounts for a large part of the gap.

Why do we not pay “essential” workers more than the rest of us?

I think about this, and I think about Ms. Dorothy, a woman who works as a server at a restaurant in Jackson, Mississippi, who took time out of her day in 2020 to report what it felt like to prepare for the oncoming pandemic. The first thing she did was buy an extra gallon of milk and put it in the freezer. Like countless working women in the Deep South, she knows what it means to face lean times, and how to cope with poverty. Even working poverty.

Because even though Ms. Dorothy is clearly smart, diligent, and engaging, she earns the tipped wage in Mississippi: $2.13 an hour (plus tips). Her employers are required to ensure she can take home the minimum wage ($7.25 an hour), but even if they follow the law (a very big IF), that’ll just mean $290 for a full 40-hour week.

Which means that, even on a great day of tips, she’s always cutting it close—monitoring her budget, waiting on the next paycheck, staring down the bills at the end of the month.

Ms. Dorothy is one of over four million tipped workers in this country; she’s also one of the millions of working women of color who face the biggest wage gaps. Black women earn 64 cents to the white man’s dollar; Latinas earn 57 cents.

I’m pretty certain that Ms. Dorothy works a lot harder in eight hours than I do. And she sure works as hard as the growing pool of millionaires and billionaires in this country, who are building their wealth directly off the labor of others. And who are overwhelmingly white men.

How did we get here?

It’s the result of a long, tangled history in our country, one built on structural racism and sexism, along with a legacy of slavery and a deeply inequitable immigration system.

What we see is largely based on occupational segregation, which is built on creaky old systems. Consider gender: women are often employed in jobs that involve tasks historically considered “women’s work”: serving, cooking, cleaning, and caring for people. And race and ethnicity: Hispanic/Latinx workers make up a huge part of the agricultural workforce; women of color comprise most of the workers engaged in domestic labor.

And these jobs often fall outside the protections offered in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employers can still pay tipped workers, two-thirds of whom are female, $2.13 an hour—the same rate they were paying in 1991. Farm workers and domestic workers do not enjoy protections like overtime and the right to organize, which are provided to most workers under the FLSA.*

This is not a coincidence—it’s a direct result of discrimination against these populations. When the FLSA was first passed in 1938, it specifically exempted farm workers and domestic workers because of pressure from Southern legislators bent on excluding Black workers.

Simply put, federal law has enshrined a double standard. It has created a low-wage workforce that employers exploit and the law ignores.

And in 2022, in the face of surging inflation and skyrocketing gas prices, it has become nothing less than a civil rights emergency. Why are we comfortable, as a nation, watching certain populations slide into despair and poverty—at the same that corporations and shareholders enjoy record profits, and executives bring home record compensation?

At the end of the day, in light of this heavy history, where do we go?

Well, one solution is straightforward, and simple: raise the federal minimum wage, and make it universal. That’s on the table in Congress, in the form of the Raise the Wage Act—but it’s very hard to find on that table. While it passed the House, once it entered the Senate it got lost under a pile of corporate influence and political cowardice. In spite of the fact that voters favor a bump in the wage by an overwhelming margin (71 percent think it should be higher).

Raising the wage to $15 and establishing a universal minimum wage would go a long way toward narrowing the gender and race wage gaps in this country. The people benefiting most and most immediately would be women and people of color.

After years of noticing Equal Pay Day come and go, maybe we can finally do more than watch from the sidelines: let’s demand that Congress do the right thing. Raising the wage would reward workers, reduce inequities, fuel the economy, and lighten the burden on taxpayers.

It would take an important step toward elevating the labor of countless women who hold our world together, and narrow the gap that traps so many people on the side of working poverty.

It would also take us a little further toward acknowledging that ALL work is valuable, ALL workers deserve adequate compensation, dignity, and rights.

All work has dignity. Especially essential work.

(But even blogging.)


*It should be noted that people have demanded, and won, a lot of protections for "excluded" workers at the state and local level. It's way past time for Congress to abolish these antiquated and harmful distinctions. No worker should be excluded from protections. Every worker deserves adequate compensation and dignity and rights. All work has dignity. (It's worth repeating.)

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