Anne Mosle

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–For the first time in his tenure, President Bush last week acknowledged that there is a growing income inequality in the United States, a gap that hits women the hardest because they are more likely than men to live in poverty.

“The fact is that income inequality is real; it’s been rising for more than 25 years,” Bush said in a Jan. 31 address on Wall Street touting news of the country’s economic strength.

Nowhere is that inequality more evident than in Bush’s own backyard, according to a December report on women’s economic progress in the states published by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

Indeed, for women, Washington is a tale of two cities: Home to the most highly educated, well-employed and well-paid women in the country, Washington also has one of the highest percentages of women living in poverty, according to the December report.

Washington’s extremes make the nation’s capital a microcosm of the United States, said Anne Mosle, president of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that gives money to programs that help low-income women and girls in the area.

“Washington is really kind of a shining example of the growing divide we’re seeing across the country,” Mosle said. “When you put a gender lens on it, you see both the great stories, but at the same time there’s a huge percentage of the population that is just not benefiting.”

On the plus side, inflation-adjusted wages for women in Washington and across the country have risen since 1989, according to the IWPR report. And nationwide, more women own their own businesses, more women work in managerial and professional jobs, and more women are earning college degrees, almost reaching parity with men.

Income Gap Widens

At the same time, the nationwide income gap has widened, and women–especially women of color–are more likely to be at the bottom. In 30 states, the poverty rate has increased or flattened out for women since 1995, and the number of women between 18 and 64 without health insurance has grown to 14 million, according to the report.

And although the wage gap has narrowed in recent decades, women still earn less than men in every state in the country. On average, women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and, at the current pace, won’t achieve parity for another 50 years.

Women’s rights advocates see the potential for progress on the legislative horizon.

On Feb. 1, the Senate passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour, a move that advocates said will be a significant boon for women, who are twice as likely as men to work at the minimum wage and make up the majority of workers in low-paying industries in cleaning, food service, retail sales and child care. The boost would increase annual earnings for minimum-wage workers by more than $4,000 a year.

The House passed a similar bill, although unlike the Senate version, it does not include a provision to cut taxes for small businesses, a potential sticking point between House-Senate negotiators. Bush supports the Senate version of he bill.

Paid Leave Proposal

Advocates saw another auspicious sign when Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, unveiled legislation last week that would require companies to give employees paid leave to care for themselves or sick family members, or to care for a new child.

And last month, Democratic congressional leaders introduced legislation to improve access to emergency contraception and increase family planning funding, a bill that would boost women’s economic status because it would give women greater control over their reproductive lives, said Amy Caiazza, a project director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Caiazza also sees some positive signs for women at the state level. In January, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed legislation aimed at universal health coverage for the state’s roughly 36 million residents. Massachusetts enacted similar legislation in 2006. Other states are also considering comprehensive health care proposals this year.

If successful, these efforts would go toward narrowing the growing income gap, advocates said.

In 1979, the wealthiest 20 percent of households earned 45.4 percent of total U.S. income; in 2004, the top 20 percent claimed 53.5 percent of U.S. income, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office in Washington, D.C. Over the same period, households in the bottom fifth dropped from 5.8 percent of U.S. income to 4.1 percent.

Women bear the brunt of that inequality because they are more likely to work in low-wage jobs, earn less than men for equal work and are more likely to interrupt work life to care for family members.

Regional Variations

Women in some states have it worse than others.

Women living in states in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and the West fare better than those residing in the South and the Midwest, according to the Institute of Women’s Policy Research report. It measured women’s economic status in the states using indicators ranging from median salaries to the wage gap to the number of college graduates and the number of women in professional and managerial occupations.

The states with the worst economies for women are Arkansas, Louisiana and West Virginia, followed by Mississippi, Kentucky, Montana, Tennessee and New Mexico. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, earned top billing in the study.

The district outperformed all other states when it came to women’s median annual salaries ($42,400), the percent of women in professional and managerial occupations (52.5), the percent of women with four or more years of a college education (45.3), and the percent of businesses owned by women (33.2).

The district, in fact, is the only jurisdiction in the country where women–with a median annual salary of $42,400–earn more than the national median salary for men, by a margin of $1,100. The district also placed 10th in the nation in the percentage of women with health insurance and 15th in the number of women in the labor force.

Yet when it comes to poverty levels, D.C. is close to rock bottom. With 18 percent of its female residents living in poverty–well above the national average of 13 percent–Washington ranks 49th in the country for the percentage of women in poverty, tied with New Jersey and ranked just above Louisiana.

“Some women are getting tracked into professional and managerial slots,” Mosle said. “But there’s a broad part of our population that has no access to those opportunities.”

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

The Best and Worst State Economies for Women

A Portrait of Women and Girls in the Washington Metropolitan Area

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