Wage Gap, Poverty, Bias Harm Women's Health

Monday, December 4, 2000

The community where a woman lives affects virtually all aspects of her health and well-being. A national "Report Card" analyzed state efforts in economic security, education, discrimination, gun control and the environment. Last in a series.

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(WOMENSENEWS)--So many American women hover at or close to the poverty level that their health and well-being is seriously undermined, and states are doing little about it.

A comprehensive national study, "Making the Grade on Women's Health: A National and State-by-State Report Card," found that more than 13 percent of the nation's women live in poverty--about 18 million. And, in many states, nearly a quarter of women live in households below the federal poverty level (defined as $17,050 for a family of four in the 48 contiguous states).

The study is a joint project by the National Women's Law Center, the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women and The Lewin Group, a health policy consulting firm.

Without an adequate income, a woman cannot afford health care services, health insurance, safe housing, nutritious food and other basic necessities that promote and protect her health and well-being, the authors said.

Checking another economic indicator, the report noted that in 1998--the latest year for which figures are available--women on average earned only 72.3 percent of what men earned. The authors assessed each state against a benchmark that women should earn 100 percent of what men earn. No state was within 10 percent of that goal. As a result, every state, the District of Columbia and the nation as a whole received an "F" or failing grade.

Gender-Based Wage Gap Persists Nationwide

The wage gap was the smallest in the District of Columbia, where women earn 87.5 percent of what their male counterparts earn. The gap was largest in Alabama and Oklahoma, where women earn less than 66 percent of what men earn.

To improve women's economic security, the report suggested states could take five key steps:

  • allowing families receiving federal income assistance, known as welfare or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, to keep some of the child support payments made on their behalf;
  • improving collection rates of child support;
  • providing state-supported income assistance akin to the federal Supplemental Security Income to the elderly, blind and individuals with disabilities;
  • keeping taxes low for currently poor families; and
  • enacting a minimum wage that allows a family to reach the poverty level.

Currently, the federally mandated minimum wage of $5.15 an hour amounts to $10,712 a year--far below what many consider to be a living wage. The Report Card set a benchmark of $6.39 an hour, which would allow a family of three supported by a year-round, full-time, minimum wage earner to reach the poverty level. Only two states, Oregon and Washington, have set $6.39 as their minimum wage. All other states are below that level or have no mandated minimum wage.

Such economic indicators may help explain why the United States ranks 19th among nations, with an average life expectancy for women of 78.9 years. Japanese women have the highest life expectancy of 82.9 years. Though no state met Japan's level, all states fell within 10 percent of that standard, the Report Card found. The range was from 76.9 years in Louisiana to 81.3 years in Hawaii.

Infant mortality is another key indicator of a population's health, the authors said. To date, 18 states have met the Healthy People 2000 goal of no more than seven infant deaths per 1,000 live births and 12 states were within 10 percent of that benchmark. The other 20 states and the District of Columbia received an "F" for falling more than 10 percent below that standard.

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