Laryssa Mykyta

(WOMENSENEWS)–For many Americans Labor Day evokes images of barbecues, beaches and bucolic vacations. But a new study reveals that for many Americans, especially women, Labor Day is a bitter reminder of the persistent ways in which many women and children are subsisting on poverty-level wages–and working harder than ever to receive them.

A report by the Ms. Foundation for Women, released last week, provides an up-close-and-personal look that defines working women by the numbers, and many of those numbers are discouraging.

"Raise the Floor: Wages and Policies That Work for All of Us," was authored by Holly Sklar, Laryssa Mykyta and Susan Wefald.

Sklar, an author and commentator, is co-author of "Shifting Fortunes: The Perils of the Growing American Wealth Gap," among other books. Mykyta is a senior policy analyst at Solutions for Progress and teaches at Temple University, including a course on women and the economy. Wefald, for many years a community organizer, is director of institutional planning at the Ms. Foundation for Women and coordinator of the Raise the Floor campaign.

Two out of three minimum-wage workers are women, points out Marie C. Wilson, president of the Ms. Foundation.

It doesn’t take much convincing to conclude that an annual minimum-wage income of $10,712 a year, particularly for single women supporting small children, simply doesn’t cut the mustard, much less provide enough money for a Labor Day picnic.

"A woman making today’s minimum wage of $5.15 an hour cannot support herself, let alone a family," she adds.

Moreover, women account for 48 percent of the labor force, but 59 percent of workers making less than $8 an hour. Women also hold a disproportionate share of the jobs in low-wage industries and a disproportionate share of the low-wage jobs in higher-paid industries, according to the Raise the Floor report.

Today’s Official Poverty Rate Is Higher Than It Was 30 Years Ago

Other data included in the report are:

  • Today’s official poverty rate is higher than it was 30 years ago.
  • Today’s minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was in 1950.
  • The number of Americans without health insurance is higher than it was 10 years ago.
  • The United States boasts the highest child poverty and highest percentage of low-paid workers among 14 industrialized nations.
  • Nearly one out of five families has zero or negative net worth.

The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, compared the United States, Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany and Hungary and concluded:

"American children are less likely to move out of the bottom of the income distribution than children elsewhere, something which challenges common perceptions about mobility and opportunity in the U.S."

And, authors of the Ms. Foundation report say that it paves the way for these children to become the next generation of minimum-wage earners.

"The economic booms of the last three decades left many behind. … For the typical household, rising debt, not a rising stock market, was the big story of the 1990s," the report says, citing an Economic Policy Institute’s study.

Lacking a Fair Day’s Pay, Workers Are Subsidizing Employers


"When workers are not paid ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ they are not just underpaid–they are subsidizing employers, stockholders, and consumers," the report argues.

Additional statistics gathered by the report include:

  • The average 25-year-old woman who works full time until retiring at age 65 will earn $523,000 less than the average working man, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. That’s a gap of more than half a million dollars.
  • Women hold just 4 percent of top-earner spots in Fortune 500 companies, and in these companies, only four chief executive officers are women.
  • Women hold only 6 percent of the positions "with clout," such as chairman, chief executive officer, president and executive vice president.
  • Women are the great majority of workers paid less than $8 an hour in medical services (88 percent), social services (84 percent) and educational services (74 percent).
  • Women make up 28 percent of the work force in durable manufacturing, 46 percent of them making less than $8 an hour.
  • Women are 92 percent of private household workers in an industry in which 63 percent of workers are paid less than $8 an hour.
  • In 1979, 40.7 percent of the low-income workers in the private sector were covered by employer-related health insurance. Fast forward to 1998 and that figure had plummeted to 29.6 percent.
  • Women make up 41 percent of the work force in communications, but they don’t pull in the bucks–58 percent of communications workers make less than $8 an hour.
  • While child care workers and health care providers, primarily women, are barely making ends meet on salaries that are often below minimum wage, the top executives at the top 10 managed health care companies rake in over 11.7 million a year.

Siobhan Benet is content manager for Women’s Enews.

For more information:

Ms. Foundation for Women:

"Raise the Floor" report: