(WOMENSENEWS)—The gap between male and female earnings is narrowing, but at such a slow pace it could take 40 years to close completely.
To learn what government might do to speed things up, we turned to Lindsay Koshgarian, research director of the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit research organization in Northampton, Mass., that specializes in making complex federal budget information transparent and accessible.
President Barack Obama submitted a budget proposal to Congress in February for the coming fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. From there, a politically nettlesome process involves budget committees of the House and the Senate setting overall spending levels and a nest of subcommittees determining allocations. If a budget is not finished by Oct. 1, lawmakers must pass temporary funding to keep agencies running.
What does all this political wrangling have to do with the wage gap?
Koshgarian says the national budget can’t solve the wage gap because there are so many causes, as a recent study showed. When women and people of color move into a field, the pay goes down, a sign that there is still sexism and discrimination in the workplace.
But she does say provisions in Obama’s budget could help women finance their education, move up into better-paying jobs and provide support so that they can do their jobs and raise their families.
Most of the proposals she discusses are in the president’s version, which gives women a good reason to follow the proceedings.
Here is a sampling of some of Koshgarian’s proposals, which have been edited for brevity.
1. Preschool for Many More, if Not Entirely All
Obama’s budget, which calls for $4.2 trillion in federal spending in 2017, has many fine programs. Unfortunately, however, the House Budget Committee wants to cut back or eliminate many of these programs, so it is important that women contact their legislators and make their wishes known.
One of the most critical areas in the budget is Obama’s proposal for a “Preschool for All” initiative for children from birth to age 5.
Although more men are helping out, women still carry most of the load for childrearing and are paying a heavy price.
Quality childcare is expensive and difficult to acquire. Depending on the state, it can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 a year for one child. Some married women drop out of the workplace because they have little money left after paying for childcare. Single mothers often have to cut back on basic necessities because so much of their pay is spent on childcare.
Obama’s proposal allocates about $66 billion over the next 10 years to provide preschool education for low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds. The president’s budget would also increase funds for Head Start by $433 million over 2016 levels. The program currently serves about one million children from low-income families.
2. Parental Leave
Parental leave would also help. Some states and cities are exploring the possibility of funding leave for new parents through social insurance plans. Employers would contribute funds towards parental leave just as they do for Social Security.
3. Pell Grants and Community College Tuition
Because they earn less than do men and make accommodations for family caregiving, women find that student debt takes a terrible toll on their financial wellbeing.
In addition to a proposal to spend $61 billion over 10 years to provide two years of free education at a community college, the president’s budget also calls for an increase in Pell Grants, which enable about 8 million low-income Americans to attend college.
Over the years, Pell Grants have lost their value because of inflation; Obama has proposed increasing the appropriation by $2 billion over 2016 levels, which would raise the individual grant to a maximum of $5,975 a year.
4. Student Loan Refinancing
Other budget proposals would also close the wage gap. The People’s Budget, a proposal by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, would allocate $412 billion over 10 years to allow students to refinance their school loans. Paying off $20,000 or more in debts often takes a decade or more.
5. Discretionary Programs in STEM
Every year, the president’s proposal for discretionary spending includes programs in science, technology and health that are small expenditures in terms of the total budget, but can be important tools in advancing equality. For example, in 2015, the $1.11 trillion proposal for discretionary spending included $29.7 billion for science and $26.3 billion for transportation. Together they represented only 5 percent of discretionary spending, but included programs to help women enter and move up in STEM (science, engineering, technology and math), as well as transportation programs that enable women to get to work.