Ninety-two years ago this week, the author of “The Feminine Mystique” and cofounder of the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan, was born in Peoria. Decades later, working women are more financially vital than ever to families, but they continue to struggle at inferior wages, and single moms are especially hard hit, according to two recent studies.
U.S. households increasingly depend on wives’ income – at the highest level of reliance in years, according to research from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.
In Illinois, more than 2.8 million women are employed statewide, according to the Census Bureau. Of those, about 620,000 are heads of households; more than 330,000 female heads of households have children younger than 18 at home.
During the early years of the financial crisis, in 2008 and 2009, employed wives’ contributions to total family earnings jumped from 45 percent to 47 percent – the largest one-year increase in 23 years, said Kristin Smith, a Carsey demographer, and that percentage stayed steady since.
She said, “Many families have lost ground due to diminished savings, housing values, and retirement accounts. Thus, it is critical to pay attention to the implications of wives as breadwinners.”
Working families were stressed before the Great Recession, burdened by increased time spent working, inflexible workplaces that haven’t kept pace with changing families, and the lack of policy supports, Smith continued.
Smith added, “The massive job losses during the 18 months of the Great Recession – primarily in male-dominated industries such as manufacturing and construction, coupled with sluggish job growth during the recovery – have left many families with lower earnings and have placed an unprecedented importance on wives’ earnings.”
More Americans than ever – 46.2 million people – now live in poverty, the Census Bureau says, and a full-time minimum-wage job isn’t enough to break out of the poverty cycle. It’s worse for women, who earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn, according to the Labor Department.
King Davis of the University of Texas, which issued a report by Dr. Shetal Vohra-Gupta and a team of researchers, said, “Wages that do not provide women with the ability to meet their needs is a major national problem that is often ignored. The absence of a living wage greatly limits their ability to sustain themselves and their families, or get out of poverty.”
To rise above the poverty threshold ($18,123 for one adult with two kids, according to the Census), a single mother raising two children and working full time would need to earn at least $348 a week, or $8.71 an hour. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour; Illinois’ minimum wages is $8.25 an hour.
Smith, from New Hampshire, said, “Policies to support working families – such as paid sick leave and paid family medical leave, affordable quality child care, livable wages, and measures that increase workplace flexibility – could help reduce the work and family conflict that many men and women experience. In addition, there is an obvious need for continued job creation, continued support for long-term unemployment, and expanded public assistance and food stamps to help families during this economic recovery.”
Davis, at Texas, underscored the need for government to do something, saying, “Low-wage earners cannot participate fully in the economy, thus lowering the overall economic health of their neighborhoods and communities. Dr. Vohra-Gupta identifies that where race, low education and limited skills combine, the risks of long-term poverty for the women and their children requires policy action by a Congress that is intent on eliminating rather than increasing the worth of entitlements.”
Bill Knight is a freelance writer. His newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com
The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.