OPINION | Inaction on gender equity perpetuates poverty

Most years, the Meta 5 Displaced Homemaker Program helps nearly 200 central Minnesota women transition into jobs outside their homes.

This isn’t easy for many women, said Kimberly Pilgrim, program director at the Brainerd campus. A large number of women need technical training to polish computer skills. Others face challenges commuting to work without public transportation in rural areas. Even more need training to manage household budgets, especially since leaving the home and entering low-paying jobs in the workplace often means even less household income.

These problems cited by Pilgrim are just starters for why about 50 women’s advocacy groups, nonprofit service organizations, labor unions and faith-based organizations have coalesced around a package of bills in the Minnesota legislature known as the Women’s Economic Security Act (WESA).

Hearings are underway in both houses of the Legislature, said Erin Parrish, executive director of the Minnesota Women’s Consortium, with another hearing set for today. “We’re picking up new partners in supporting WESA almost every day,” she said.

Among key elements of the proposed legislation is raising the Minnesota minimum wage to $9.50 an hour. That would still leave families dependent on single working mothers living in poverty, but it would be a vast improvement for these women and their dependents who are now taking minimum wage jobs, paying some Minnesotans as little as $6.15 per hour.

“When we perpetuate poverty with low wages, all we’re doing is taking homemakers and care givers out of their homes. This creates even more problems,” said Brainerd’s Pilgrim. “We have to get people to understand this hurts everyone in Minnesota. It’s not just women; it’s not just the poor.”

That message is getting around, said Parrish. The reception for WESA legislation is promising at the State Capitol, she said. Studies conducted here in Minnesota, by groups at the federal level, and internationally through United Nations agencies help quantify the need for gender equity and opportunity.

For instance, in Minnesota, the median annual salary for white males in 2012 was $51,615. For white women, the median salary dropped to $41,124; for African American women, $31,958; form American Indian women, $32,054; Asian American women, $38,225; Latino women, $29,434; for immigrant and refugee women in the U.S. from six to 10 years, $30,000; and for women with a disability, $31,800.

The figures above come from the University of Minnesota Humphrey School’s Center on Women and Public Policy, based on 2012 Census data.

Caitlin Biegler of the Minnesota Budget Project supported the university center’s findings by noting white women make 80 cents for the dollar men earn, and African American and American Indian women earn only 62 cents compared to white men’s dollars.

Separately, the national Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) issued a report in late January that found Minnesota ranks seventh among states in employing policies that help families with financial security. But that still leaves 27.8 percent of Minnesota households “one crisis away from financial devastation.”

Not surprisingly, CFED found Minnesota’s communities of color are left behind even as the state economy is growing again. The Humphrey School study cited above documents the disparity.

These are not uniquely “made in Minnesota” problems. The UN Commission on the Status of Women in March reaffirmed “the feminization of poverty persists” in around the world and that equality for women is needed for sustainable economic growth. This document points UN programs towards reducing and eliminating discrimination and inequality for women.

Local remedies, or bridges to a more equitable and sustainable economy, however, are within reach of Minnesota lawmakers, conscientious business owners and service providers. But lifting the Minnesota economy by opening opportunities for women need public policy support.

In a recent Minnesota 2020 Tuesday Talk online discussion, Parrish said a key part of the WESA legislative package would be closing the gender pay gap.

Other key portions of the legislation, she said, would expand access to high-quality, affordable child care, expand family and sick leave for working families, protect women from discrimination in the workplace, enhance protections for victims of violence, encourage women to enter and progress in non-traditional, high-wage jobs, and help older women to be economically secure.

We do have programs in place that do make a difference and help women and their families, as the CFED noted. Pilgrim’s Displaced Homemaker Program, at Brainerd, and similar groups such as Life-Work Planning Center at Mankato, the Women’s Initiative for Self Empowerment (W.I.S.E.) and the St. Joseph Worker Program in St. Paul, and the Women in Transition and Women’s Programs of Employment Action Center in St. Louis Park, are examples of where state and local efforts come together to help women transition into gainful employment.

“We get funding from DEED (Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development) and our community college is our fiscal agent,” Pilgrim said. The link with Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is especially helpful for accessing the training and support we need, she said.

What her program and all Minnesotans need is a more equitable economy and more opportunities. That requires WESA.

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    Lee Egerstrom's picture
    Lee Egerstrom

    Lee Egerstrom is an Economic Development Fellow at Minnesota 2020.