March is Women’s History Month and there’s no better time to reflect on the progress women have made in the last century. It has been 92 years since women fought for and gained the right to vote in the United States. In 1963 the Equal Pay Act became federal law, which requires employers to provide equal pay for men and women performing the same job duties regardless of race, color, religion, national origin or sex of the worker. Sandra Day O’Conner became the first woman to join the Supreme Court in 1981. Madeline Albright became the first female Secretary of State in 1997. Finally, in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law, which expands workers’ right to sue for pay discrimination, and relaxes the statute of limitation of such suits.
Despite this tremendous progress, there is still a long way to go in the fight for equality. The Gender Wealth Gap is a pervasive problem affecting women in all aspects of their lives. The most obvious manifestation of the gender wealth gap can be seen in the pay gap. The pay gap refers to the fact that women that get the same college degree from the same University in the same major as a male classmate, and then works in full-time job in the same occupation earns 7% less than him within one year out of school. This expands further into their careers. Over a 35-year career, women with a college degree will make around $1.2 million less than a male with the same degree.
But this issue extends beyond wages into debt, wealth, homeownership, and investments. Mariko Chang, a former Sociology Professor at Harvard turned independent consultant, has done considerable work to study the gender wealth gap. She found that over all, single women have more debt then single men whether it be home, education, credit-card, or installment debt. This is most apparent with credit card debt.
- 38% of men have credit card debt while 49% of women have credit card debt.
- The median wealth of full-time workers age 18-64 varies greatly by gender.
- Single men have a median wealth of $20,000, while the median wealth for women in the same categories is only $1,550.
- 38% of never-married men own a home, only 28% of women do.
- 42% of never-married men have investments in stock with a median value of $16,000, only 29% of women own investments in stock with a median value of $10,000.
Much like the Racial Wealth Gap, women are still at a disadvantage when trying to access and maintain the same economic resources as men. Women of color are at even more of a disadvantage then their white peers. They experience the devastating effects of not only the gender wealth gap but also the racial wealth gap. For women ages 18 to 64, the amount of wealth compounded by race creates a bleak picture. Excluding the wealth inherent in the vehicles they own for transportation, single Black women have a median wealth of $100, single Latinas have a median wealth of $120, and single White women have a median wealth of $41,000.
In Illinois, a number of bills have been proposed that would help women rise above the gender wealth gap. This includes bills that would remove barriers to savings, increase access to retirement savings opportunities, and raise the minimum wage.
- Removing Asset Limits on TANF: SB2319 & HB2262 would eliminate the asset test on Illinois’ Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program. Removing the asset limit will remove a significant savings barrier for our most vulnerable families. In addition to encouraging savings behavior, it will also save the state money in administrative costs.
- Automatic IRA: SB2400 & HB2461 would create an Automatic IRA program in Illinois. The State of Illinois should expand retirement savings opportunities by creating an automatic retirement account option for all Illinois workers currently lacking retirement savings access. It creates a savings structure that utilizes employer payroll systems and gives workers the option of depositing a portion of earned wages into approved retirement accounts.
- Raising the Minimum Wage: SB68 amends the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act. It increases Illinois’ minimum wage from the current $8.25 an hour to $10.65 an hour. With the worst recession in a generation still being felt across the nation, state and federal leaders are focused on getting their economies moving again while helping working families make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage is a key strategy for doing both and should be part of an economic recovery agenda.
The Gender Wealth Gap can be alleviated by passing good public policy that helps women achieve the same access to wealth and resources that men are afforded. There’s no better time than Women’s History Month to pass public policy that helps improve women’s lives by encouraging savings, provided access to retirement savings, and raising the minimum wage that women and men alike are paid.