In December of 2013, President Obama declared income inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”
“The basic bargain at the heart of our economy has frayed,” he said, and declared it “… a bigger threat than the fiscal deficit.”
As noted by The Washington Post the next month, the “income gap” already was taking shape as a central issue for both parties ahead of the 2014 mid-terms. Indeed, Democrats worked hard in the last election to highlight income inequality and the shrinking American middle-class as a means to motivate the base to turn out to the polls. It didn’t work.
While Republicans may trumpet their gains in the U.S. House and Senate as evidence that their policies resonate more with middle-class and centrist voters than Democrat policies do, the fact remains that polls repeatedly show Americans’ confidence in Congress at historical lows — with a resultant low voter turnout. Perhaps a better explanation is simply that Americans have lost faith in their government to effectively address even bread-and-butter legislation — such as passing transportation and defense funding bills — much less successfully meet the ‘defining challenges of our time.’ In truth, only those voters who regard the franchise as an habitual civic duty bothered to show up at the polls in 2014 mid-terms and of those a preponderance happened to be Republicans.
Perhaps a major reason for voter apathy is that neither party is advancing any new ideas, or any ideas that might provide common ground for consensus in passing new legislation. Both parties seem hide-bound by a deep-seated animus that prevents any positive movement on behalf of the American people. As a consequence, pols trot out the same tired old policies in different coats of paint to the continuing disgust — and disinterest — of the electorate.
Case-In-Point: To date, no one has looked at the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as a launch platform for new initiatives in countering income inequality. But why not? There are abundant reasons why an ERA at both the state and federal levels would drive positive economic change aimed directly at the working poor and middle-class families.
Consider the following:
- Study after study shows that women in the workforce earn an average of about 78 cents of what men earn. You can argue the why’s and wherefor’s — as pols love to do — but arguing is not legislating. This is an area of chronic income inequality rife with potential for new initiatives in countering income disparity and expanding economic opportunity.
- Women workers now constitute nearly half (47%) of the American workforce. Women are the sole or primary providers in nearly 40% of all households with children. Of that 40%, more than a third are married mothers who earn a higher income than their spouses, while just under two-thirds are single mothers. According to the US Department of Labor, as of January 2015 the US labor force totalled 157 million workers, which includes about 74 million women workers. A population of 74 million exceeds the entire population of all but 17 of the most populous nations in the world. It would rank US women workers 18th in size of 193 nations.
- At the same time as women make less than men, but are the primary providers in 40% of households, child care costs in the US can exceed the cost of a college education. For single working mothers with small children, the high cost of child care by itself might be a primary reason why more than half of American school-children live in poverty. You read that right — more than half of American schoolchildren in the wealthiest, most prosperous nation on earth now live in poverty.
- Two-thirds of all minimum-wage workers are women. Three-quarters of all workers who depend on tips are women. Women who earn a portion of their income on tips are seven times more likely to live in poverty than workers who don’t.
- Twice as many women as men over the age of 65 live in poverty. It’s easy to understand why, given that Social Security is based in part on lifetime earnings and that many of the women now 65 and older worked as homemakers. Perhaps we should count impoverished senior women among the “losers” in the Economic Hunger Games of winners and losers that market-force capitalists love to tout. But for me, the question should be: Does our society value its homemakers? Should there be an increase to Social Security benefits for senior women based on having been a homemaker as a principal occupation? I’d love see the pols and pundits argue that one.
- The US is one of only three industrialized countries in the world that provides no paid maternity leave. So both single parents and couples can expect to take an immediate economic hit for every child they have by comparison with workers in other industrialized countries. At the same time, privately held companies can deny women workers coverage for the costs of birth control, while in some states women can be fired from a job for becoming pregnant. In my view, it would be hard to design by intent an economic system more anti-family and anti-child, more unjust to women workers, or one which is more overtly gender-biased. So while it’s easy to talk about family values and the sanctity of life, it appears much harder to actually provide economic support to young families if it involves spending tax dollars or asking the richest 1% to pay a little more.
It appears that the ‘invisible hand’ of the marketplace is an efficient and powerful back-handed slap to the face of American working women.
While full economic justice for women might well serve to bridge a significant portion of the income gap between what the 1% earn and the rest of us earn, our political bodies haven’t yet cracked wise that support for the ERA at both the state and federal levels might be a powerful driver for effecting that change. Pro forma, it seems they’d rather posture publically than actually try to do anything. At least, that’s been the pattern for the last decade or so. Well, to be fair, not everywhere — just in most places. To date 23 states already had, or have adopted, constitutional amendments that incorporate some form of constitutional ERA, so somebody is paying attention. Minnesota should be the next state to pass an ERA.
One might ask, why not simply pass legislation that enacts policies designed to correct the chronic economic injustices and inefficiencies of the marketplace outlined here? The reason is that statutes and policies are easily undone, watered-down, and made toothless. For example, a worker-centric legislature could enact a statute that forbids restaurant owners from confiscating and/or redistributing some or all of a servers’ tips as a condition of their employment (sadly, a not-uncommon practice), but that same statute could be eliminated when a business-centric legislature takes power. There is little room to challenge in court lawful policies that adhere to the attendant biases of a duly-elected majority legislature, however mean-spirited that legislation may be.
On the other hand, an ERA amendment to the state and federal Constitution would provide a platform for enacting policies of economic justice under the aegis of Constitutional law. It is in our respective state and federal Constitutions that we have enshrined our American values of justice and fair play, as opposed to relying on the political expediencies of a legislature in service to an ideology. ERA as a platform for policies designed to counter income disparity caused by gender-inequity would ensure that such policies can be challenged, defended and modified only within the highest courts, thus helping to ensure that any such policies enacted by a legislature today won’t be easily undone tomorrow.
The 89th Minnesota Congress should pass the MN-ERA with an eye to enacting future progressive legislation and should memorialize the US Congress to lift its self-imposed deadline and allow the states to complete ratification of the federal ERA.