Life-Time Self-Sufficiency: Eight Things Every Young Woman Should Know

By Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson

An Institute for Women’s Policy Research study analyzing men and women’s earnings over a 15-year span found that women in the prime working ages of 26 to 59 made only 38 percent of what prime working-age men made during the same time span. This major gap is due to occupational segregation, discrimination, caregiving obligations, and other factors, and creates a critical obstacle for women’s economic security throughout their working years and into retirement. Depending on a woman’s socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity, this gap may be even larger. Here are eight things all young women need to know now to be self-sufficient later.

1. Education

Education levels are strongly associated with earnings. The median weekly earnings of bachelor’s degree holders are 65.8 percent higher than those with only a high school degree. Women increasingly recognize the need to further their education and now outnumber men among those graduating with bachelor’s degrees, yet women still earn less than men at every level of educational attainment.  Postsecondary education is therefore an important tool for young women to increase economic security over their lifetime.

2. Reproductive Choice

Since educational attainment is a major determining factor of one’s income levels throughout life, and completing high school or college is difficult to combine with child-rearing responsibilities, a woman’s ability to control her own reproductive life is crucial for her economic security. If you are in school and have children, familiarize yourself with and use the student parent support services available in your school and/or community, and advocate for more such services.

3. Occupational Segregation

Many women work in occupations that are traditionally female-dominated and are undervalued and underpaid compared to male-dominated occupations. As of the 1990s, after decades during which occupations increasingly became more ‘mixed’, further gender integration stalled. There are now proportionately fewer women in Information Technology occupations, which are generally well-paid, than there were 15 years ago. As a young woman choosing a career, explore non-traditional career options and keep in mind the implications your career choice may have for your ability to support yourself into the future.

4. Wage Gap

Women also earn less than men within nearly every occupation, indicating that occupational segregation is only part of the story. The gender wage gap begins early (with young women starting off at lower salaries than young men with comparable qualifications in comparable positions), widens over time, and can be larger or smaller depending on one’s race/ethnicity.  Part of the problem may be that young women are less likely than young men to negotiate for a higher starting salary or a raise.  Also, many employers work to keep pay information confidential; nearly half of all workers say they are either contractually forbidden or strongly discouraged from discussing their pay with their co-workers. Knowledge is power. So, talk to your co-workers, do research on average pay in your industry, and negotiate your salary. Know what you’re worth and ask for it.

5. Discrimination and Harassment

Research indicates that a significant portion of the wage gap within occupations cannot be fully explained by known factors—such as education or experience—suggesting that gender discrimination is still a significant barrier to women’s economic progress. Everyone has a right to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment based on gender or race/ethnicity. Know your rights under the law, familiarize yourself with the policies and protections at your workplace, and speak up when you feel these rights are violated.

6. Work/life balance

Although the majority of women are active in the workforce, they remain the primary caregivers to children and other dependents. Balancing work and personal life can be a struggle for many women and taking time out of work can have a long-term impact on your earnings and job security. Find out whether your employer offers flexible work arrangements and is subject to the Family and Medical Leave Act, in order to know your rights and responsibilities when balancing your work life and personal life.

7. Social Security

Compared to men, women rely on Social Security for a longer period of time (because they live longer) and depend on Social Security for a greater share of their income.  Yet, women receive, on average, significantly lower Social Security benefits due to a lifetime of lower wages and periods of decreased employment due to caregiving responsibilities for children, parents, or others. As a young woman, be aware that there is strong likelihood that you will live alone for at least part of your retirement. Educate yourself on how to maximize your Social Security benefits, strive towards ensuring other sources of income in retirement, and work to protect this program which is so vital to so many women and men.

8. Assets, Savings, and Pension Plans

Women face specific barriers to acquiring assets, building up savings, and investing in a pension plan. Women’s lifelong lower earnings due to occupational segregation, the wage gap, and caregiving responsibilities make it difficult to accumulate assets and savings. Women are also significantly less likely than men to have access to and participate in employer-sponsored retirement or pension plans. On top of these factors, women who do receive income from their own pensions receive on average less than half as much as men. To offset reliance on Social Security, start thinking about other ways to supplement your income in retirement early in your life and career.

Be cognizant of how gender inequality impacts your ability to be economically secure.  These inequalities are reflected in policies, institutions, and attitudes that affect all of us on a daily basis.  Know you have the ability to change this by educating yourself and others, and advocating for women-friendly policies. For in-depth studies on the issues described above and many others, visit the Institute for Women’s Policy Research research portal.

Minjon Tholen and Heidi Reynolds-Stenson are Research Interns at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

The For-Profit College Education: A Not-So-Golden Ticket

By Jennifer Herard

Nontraditional students are often committed and motivated to pursuing postsecondary education, but confront unique challenges. The for-profit college industry has stepped in to fill the demand for education of nontraditional students, but often these schools succeed only in adding to the burdens on nontraditional students.

Nontraditional students—a term that can include those who are working part- or full-time while acquiring an education, student parents, and those who have delayed enrollment—make up a significant part of the overall student population. According to a March 2011 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) report, nearly a quarter (3.9 million) of postsecondary students in the United States are parents—of which 57 percent are low-income. Women make up a significant portion at 78 percent of single student parents and 81 percent of low-income, single parents.

Low-income, single parents face unique challenges and needs, such as access to affordable child care. But for student parents, the hard-fought earning of a degree can provide a significant payoff in the way of increased earnings and educational outcomes for children in the family. For-profit colleges offer student parents what seems to be a golden ticket, attracting a high proportion of student parents—48 percent of students at for-profit colleges have dependent children, more than double the proportion found at public and not-for-profit institutions. However, for-profit colleges often do not provide adequate support to ensure student parent success.

As a result of a noticeable growth in enrollment, profits, and amounts of financial aid funding at for-profit colleges, Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, launched an investigation in June 2010 with a series of five hearings and a document collection to investigate the industry’s practices.

The investigation revealed that for-profit colleges hire droves of recruiters who often use misleading practices to pull in nontraditional students. Senator Harkin asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate recruiting practices and found  “[r]ecruiters are too often encouraged to hide the ball on matters of cost, transferability of credits, graduation rates, and employment and salary after graduation.”

This is only one of the findings of the investigation that raised red flags, particularly for low-income parents. According to the HELP Committee’s investigation, for-profit colleges are actually six times more expensive than community college and twice that of four-year public schools. Low-income students often take out federal loans in order to pay the exorbitant costs of for-profit colleges and then are not able to complete their program, leaving them saddled with a huge amount of debt and no degree to provide better job opportunities.

Adding to this, once students are enrolled, for-profit colleges often do not make available the support services that nontraditional students need to be successful, such as academic advisors or childcare services.

IWPR hosted a July 25th webinar titled Closing the Financial Gap for Low-Income Student Parents: The Benefits of Integrated Service Delivery on Community College Campuses. Ann Lyn Hall, Director of CNM Connect at Central New Mexico Community College and Kristina Testa-Buzzee, Director of the Family Economic Security Program at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut discussed the ways that their institutions support student parents.

Hall said that bundling services—providing two or three of support services such as public benefits screening, academic advising, and achievement coaches—allows a student to achieve his or her educational outcomes at a better rate than when services are provided in isolation. Surprisingly, student parents at Norwalk Community College reported that coaching services are more valuable to their success than financial services.

For-profit colleges are sinking money into recruitment and that is not a helpful service for student parents who already have the motivation and desire to go to college. Instead, these dedicated students need support staff, such as achievement coaches, to help in navigating the college environment.

Jennifer Herard is the Research Intern with the Student Parent Success Initiative, an Institute for Women’s Policy Research project.

WSJ Op-ed Misses On Paid Sick Days

By Robert Drago

Since the implementation of a paid sick days mandate in San Francisco, followed by Washington DC, and most recently the state of Connecticut, the popularity of paid sick days laws is growing. This has caused concern in the business community. In the latest salvo, Michael Saltsman discussed Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) findings regarding San Francisco’s experience with a paid sick days ordinance. The piece includes numerous mischaracterizations of the facts. Interpreting the Bureau of Labor Statistics finding that 80 percent of private sector employee have “some type of leave” as making up for paid sick days (only 62 percent have that), is misleading: vacations are typically scheduled weeks or months in advance; one’s own illness or that of a child usually cannot be scheduled. IWPR’s finding that only 3 percent of employers reported that fewer employees came to work while sick needs to be balanced against the 25 percent of employees who said that they were better able to care for their own or their families’ health needs.  Among all demographic and racial/ethnic groups, black (29 percent), Latino (31 percent), low-wage (30 percent), women (27.5 percent), and workers over 55 (34 percent) were most likely to say they were better able to care for their own or their families’ health needs as a result of the paid sick days law.

The finding that 30 percent of low-wage employees reported adverse hours or layoffs effects also requires context: According to the San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, the city also raised the minimum wage and mandated health insurance around the same time as the paid sick days ordinance, and the expense of health insurance (particularly for low-wage employers) far outweighs any conceivable impact from paid sick days. Further, the surveys were administered late in 2009 (for employers) and early in 2010 (for employees), and those were not exactly great times for the U.S. economy.

Finally, the most important piece of context missing is that the median employee in San Francisco with paid sick days reported using three days per year. For someone working 5 days per week for 52 weeks per year, that represents 1.2 percent of annual earnings. That figure is around one-twentieth the size of the  percentage increase in the federal minimum wage during and just after the Great Recession (rising from $5.85 to $7.25) and no serious economist believed that increase in labor costs had any ill effects on the economy. The ostensible “downside” of paid sick days discussed by Mr. Saltsman is in fact a mirage.

 

Dr. Robert Drago is the Director of Research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Prior to joining IWPR, Dr. Drago held positions as Senior Economist with the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress and Professor at the Pennsylvania State University in the departments of Women’s Studies and Labor Studies.

An Unbalanced Debt Deal: Cutting Vital Programs Does Not Address the Deficit

The deal to raise the debt ceiling that may or may not have been reached between President Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner should be rejected by members of the House and Senate if it is as unbalanced as is being reported in the press. Supposedly it includes no tax increases and that makes it unbalanced on its face. Rather it includes a promise of future tax reform in exchange for immediate cuts to vital programs.

In general, the White House has been trying to get agreement with Republicans in Congress to balance budget cuts with tax increases as a way to tame annual deficits and contribute to bringing the accumulated debt down as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The White House was asking for $4 trillion in cuts and revenue increases over 12 years, but numbers discussed recently are somewhat more modest and talk of cuts, not tax increases, has dominated.

While the Republicans have refused to accept tax increases, the President has been willing to put large cuts on the table, even suggesting significant cuts in well-loved programs such as Social Security and Medicare. This inclination exists despite the White House’s insistence that Social Security does not contribute to the budget deficit and its Trustees projection that the program will have sufficient funds to pay benefits in full through 2036, even if no changes are made. While Medicare’s future shortfalls are expected to contribute to future budget deficits—if health care costs are not brought under better control—the Trustees of the two plans project that Medicare can pay all benefits through 2024, and an Actuary Office within DHHS moved their estimate from 2017 to 2029 due to the passage of health care reform, even if no further changes are made on the benefit or revenue side.

Any deal that makes significant cuts to the benefits provided by these programs should be rejected. Women are the majority of those receiving benefits from both Medicare and Social Security, primarily because they live longer than men and these programs primarily serve those in their 60s and beyond. IWPR research shows how much women rely on Social Security. More than two-thirds of all women aged 65 and older rely on Social Security for half or more of their income. For men that age, the share is more than half.

Among the cuts to Social Security that may be included in the deal, as reported in the media, is a shift in the cost of living adjustment (COLA) to a smaller measure of inflation which is less accurate than the current price index used to adjust Social Security benefits. Health and aging experts agree that elders face higher than average price inflation because they consume so much health care, yet the proposed switch to the “chained CPI” would reduce benefits.  According to the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), at age 65 the chained CPI would reduce benefits by 1 percent and, by age 95, it would result in a 10 percent reduction of benefits. Women are twice as likely as men to live to age 95, meaning a benefit cut that accumulates over time, as the chained CPI does, would especially hurt women.

Raising the eligibility age for either Social Security or Medicare amounts to a disastrous cut to seniors and future retirees, who have paid for these benefits throughout their lives. Every one year increase in the eligibility age for Social Security amounts to a seven percent cut in benefits across the board. Lack of health insurance is an enormous problem for older adults. Rates of employer-sponsered health insurance coverage decline beginning at age 50—and continue to decline until the Medicare eligibility age (65) is reached. Raising the eligibility age for Medicare would prolong the period without insurance coverage that many experience just as their health care needs are increasing.

The debt ceiling needs to be raised to enable the federal government to meet obligations it has already incurred. Congress has already approved the budget expenditures that require the ceiling to be raised and they should lift the debt ceiling to allow the budget they voted for to be fully implemented.

Cutting essential programs that do not contribute to the deficit now and will not for at least a decade is a completely unnecessary part of any deal on the debt ceiling. There are many ways of bringing the nation’s debt under control without attacking programs that Americans rely on for survival. Moreover, Americans strongly support these programs and would be willing to pay more in taxes if necessary to preserve current levels of benefits.

Members of Congress who vote for cuts such as these may well find that voters do not agree with their actions.

Heidi Hartmann, Ph.D., is the President of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. he has published numerous articles in journals and books and her work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. She lectures widely on women, economics, and public policy, frequently testifies before the U.S. Congress, and is often cited as an authority in various media outlets.

Women Workers in a Post-Walmart World

By Katherine Kimpel

Last week, the Supreme Court issued a decision that makes it harder for women in the workplace to protect their rights to be free from discrimination.  In reaching their decision in Dukes v. Walmart, the Justices—the five men who wrote the majority opinion, notably overruling the objections of all three women on the court— assumed that discrimination in the workplace just doesn’t really happen that much anymore. But Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the other men on the court didn’t cite any evidence, didn’t refer to any studies, or even bother to tell any anecdote to back up that claim. They didn’t bother to contend with the fact that individuals and government agencies continually litigate, prove, and then settle or win employment discrimination cases—cases that show that discrimination is, alas, alive and well.

For example, just last year a jury in New York federal court delivered a unanimous verdict against Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, finding that the corporation had discriminated against female employees in pay and promotions, and had discriminated against pregnant employees. Although the over $250 million dollars resulting from that verdict was significant, even more important were the 23 pages of changes to policies and procedures that the company later agreed to in order to settle the case.

You see, the brave women who stood up to Novartis to bring that lawsuit helped more than themselves.  They helped the other women at Novartis, by getting the company to change. They helped other women working in the pharmaceutical industry, by sending a message to employers that discrimination will not be tolerated and that litigation can result in just and heavy penalties. And they helped the government, by holding a global corporation accountable to our federal civil rights laws.

Congress knew, when drafting the civil rights laws, that we could never expect the government to shoulder enforcement by itself. They created a system where individual Americans could stand up and act as private attorneys general—essentially privatizing, in part, the enforcement of equal opportunity. However, had last week’s Supreme Court decision in Dukes v. Walmart been the law of the land in 2010 when Novartis was decided, the brave plaintiffs in the case may not have been successful, and the changes at Novartis may never have happened.

For women workers in a post-Walmart world, it is undeniable that the scales are weighted more heavily in favor of corporations, scaling back the progress for which our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers fought so valiantly. That sad fact does not relieve us of responsibility; instead, it simply means that we will all have to fight harder and with more determination than before.

On a day-to-day basis, this fight takes shape in advocating for yourselves in negotiating starting salaries, demanding rightful raises, and pushing aggressively for promotions. This fight takes shape in developing trusted coworkers who will help you benchmark your compensation and better understand the ladders to success. This fight takes shape in keeping detailed records of all of this and of your employers responses, good or bad, so that if the day comes when you or they need to get outside help, you’re ready. This fight takes shape in refusing to be silent when you or a coworker is underpaid, passed over for promotion, subjected to harassment, or disproportionately disciplined.

All of those things are necessary and good, but they are not enough. Women workers— indeed, all workers—in a post-Walmart world need to be proactive about this affront to our fundamental right to equal opportunity. Educate family and friends, write letters to your local paper, and contact your elected representatives to let them know you’re paying attention, you’re concerned, and you expect the Supreme Court’s over-reaching on behalf of corporations to be corrected.

Justice Scalia and the four other men of the majority got it wrong when they assumed that our world is a better place than it is, when they assumed that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore. They got it wrong when they decided that protecting corporations was more important than protecting individual Americans, be they men or women of any race. But the underlying faith in people wasn’t entirely misplaced. Every day, I work with men and women whose bravery to stand up for what is right inspires me. The moment now calls for the rest of us to also stand up to a Supreme Court that has gone too far.

Katherine M. Kimpel is a Partner of Sanford Wittels & Heisler, LLP, a national law firm with offices in Washington, D.C., New York, and California.  Ms. Kimpel received her law degree from Yale Law School in 2006. She served as class counsel in the Velez v. Novartis gender discrimination case and authored the amicus brief on behalf of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Dukes v. Walmart. Before joining Sanford Wittels & Heisler in 2007, Ms. Kimpel served as Special Counsel to Senator Russell Feingold on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she handled criminal justice and other civil rights issues for the Senator.

Addressing Concerns of Immigrant Women Helps Communities Nationwide

by Claudia Williams

In recent years, the United States has experienced one of the largest waves of immigration in its history. The immigrant population has almost doubled since the 1990’s and the number of undocumented female immigrants has increased significantly. Immigrant women also make up more than half of new legal immigrants arriving to the United States.

While many immigrant women come to the United States in search of better opportunities, they are often vulnerable to poverty and discrimination and face many barriers in their day to day life, making it harder for them to achieve economic security and to advance in their careers.

Public policies are fundamental to integrating immigrant women into U.S. society. The U.S. Congress,  however, has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform to address the complex challenges our current immigration system creates. In the absence of reform at the national level, many states and localities have introduced and passed anti-immigrant legislation. This is particularly unfortunate for immigrant women, who besides sharing risks with their male counterparts also experience particular difficulties that are more common or unique to them.

IWPR recently released a study that identified some of the challenges Latina immigrants face, such as limited proficiency in English, disproportionate exposure to violence and harassment, and lower earnings and rates of educational attainment. Also, as caregivers, immigrant women are more affected than their male counterparts by the lack of affordable and reliable child care and reproductive health services.

IWPR’s research also found that constant fears of deportation and family separation have led many immigrant women to live in the shadows. Immigrant women may be working “under the table,” without having access to quality jobs and educational opportunities, mainly due to their immigration status. Resulting economic instability prevents immigrant women from contributing fully to our society—we lose valuable resources that could help our country move forward.

Advocacy and service organizations working on the ground with immigrants recognize that an overhaul of the current immigration system is needed. However, advocates and researchers also need to focus more on the concerns of immigrant women. In most policy discussions little or nothing is said about how certain policies (such as the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors), 287(g) and Comprehensive Immigration Reform) would specifically affect women. IWPR’s study found that the limited attention women’s issues receive is an important gap within the immigration grassroots and advocacy movement. Out of 280 organizations interviewed for the IWPR study, only eight advocated with a specific focus on the rights and needs of immigrant women.

A better understanding of women’s challenges and circumstances would represent an important step forward in filling this gap. Many of the issues directly affecting women also affect men and children, so addressing these challenges would be beneficial to the entire immigrant community.

Claudia Williams is a research analyst at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Bad Economics Meet Paid Sick Days in Philadelphia

by Robert Drago

A new study for the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) estimates that Philadelphia’s proposed paid sick days legislation would cost employers between $350 million and $752 million annually. Both the factual basis and the assumptions underlying this study are seriously flawed.

The totals derive from two presumed costs: the amount for new paid sick days coverage, estimated at between 34 and 42 cents per worker hour in direct labor costs, and 38 cents per worker hour in compliance costs for employees who already have paid sick days.

Consider the new paid sick days coverage. The NFIB study assumes workers will use all of the days allowed—9 days annually for larger employers, 5 days annually for small employers. Their figures imply an estimated overall average of 8.35 days per year. However, from a recent, random sample of employees in San Francisco, which has had similar requirements since 2007, the average employee uses 3 days per year. This estimate agrees well with IWPR analysis of national data from the National Health Interview Survey (3.1 days used on average). Given the fact that workers use only 3 days per year, new sick days costs are overestimated by 64 percent in the NFIB study. The actual hourly cost range, using NFIB’s methods, is thus about 12 to 15 cents per hour.

The second source of costs is compliance expenses for employers who already offer paid sick days. Although it is not known exactly how many days most employers in Philadelphia offer at present, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the national average is 8 days per year for private-sector employees with one year of job tenure. It seems reasonable to assume that employees in Philadelphia with access to paid sick time use around 3 days per year, as do workers in San Francisco. These statistics suggest that there is likely to be little or no additional paid sick days use by employees who already have access to paid sick days. While there might be some start-up costs to bring company policies in compliance with the law, these will be a one-time cost.

The NFIB, however, claims the annual compliance costs will be 38 cents per hour for employers that already provide paid sick days. At that rate, an employer would be hiring one full-time employee at $15 per hour to track paid sick days for every 40 current full-time employees (the result of dividing $15 by 38 cents). An hour per week per employee to track sick time use seems like a serious overstatement. If the task of monitoring sick days use after passage of the proposed law took one extra hour per week per 40 employees (who already had paid sick days before the law was passed), a more realistic estimate, compliance costs would fall to about one cent per hour.

Using the NFIB’s own methods, with known facts and more reasonable assumptions, the hourly costs for new coverage drop to 12 to 15 cents per hour, and the costs of compliance for employers already providing paid sick days drop to one cent per hour. This suggests a far lower cost for implementation of the law than the NFIB study states, especially for businesses that already provide employees with paid sick days or an equivalent benefit.

It is almost enough to give one pause over the objectivity of the entire NFIB study.

Robert Drago is the Director of Research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.