Women and the Minimum Wage
1:45 pm, February 14th | by Colette McIntyre
One of the more interesting proposals that President Obama laid out in his State of the Union address was an argument to increase the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour and index it to inflation. In a speech that garnered a loud ovation in the House chamber, Obama declared a higher minimum wage vital to “a rising, thriving middle class.” You might not expect it, but the question of what minimum wage ought to be is actually a specifically feminist issue.
If seen through to fruition, Obama’s initiative to increase the minimum wage would be the first federal raise since 2009. Currently, the minimum stands at $7.25/hour; this adds up to an annual salary of $14,500, an amount that wouldn’t cover rent in any state in the country. If the minimum wage kept up with inflation, workers should be making $10.52 an hour, at the very least. Since the minimum wage’s peak in 1968, increases in productivity have long surpassed minimum wage growth. As Anrindrajit Dube, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst points out, even the minimum wage’s critics recognize that “minimum wages reduce poverty and raise family incomes at the bottom end.” A raise would mean “simply (almost) keeping up with costs of living faced by low-income workers.”
But how does the minimum wage affect women? Nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women, and 15 percent of those women are Black or Latina. They are 95 percent of home health aide workers, over half of the retail workforce, 72 percent of cashiers, 85 percent of maids and housecleaners, and 83 percent of personal care aides. The minimum wage for tipped workers is a paltry $2.13, a salary that has remained unchanged for 20 years, and women make up nearly two-thirds of the workers in tipped occupations. Restaurant servers are three times more likely to live in poverty than others in the workforce, and 70 percent of servers are women. In 2010, the poverty rate for women rose to a record high of 14.5 percent. For Black and Latina women, the rate was even higher — 25.6 percent for Black women and 25 percent for Latina women. 17 million women lived in poverty that year, compared with 12.6 million men.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, if the minimum wage increased to $9.80, more than 28 million workers would get a raise, almost 55 percent of them women. An increase in the minimum wage could also help to shrink the gender pay gap: 70 percent of the states with the smallest wage gaps had minimum wages above the federal standards.
As demonstrated by this National Women’s Law Center graphic, only 4 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. What’s are the chances that an adult minimum wage worker is a woman? Nearly 64 in 100. So yes, raising the minimum wage is a feminist issue. A higher minimum wage leads to a smaller gender pay gap, less impoverished families, and more economically independent and secure women. What do you think?
[Photo via Shutterstock]