Poverty in Oklahoma is consistently above the national average, but what you may not have noticed is the fact that women are more likely to experience poverty than men. Seventeen percent of women in Oklahoma live below the poverty line, compared to just 14.5 percent of men. Throughout the country, this trend is present across all races and family types — women of color have higher poverty rates than men of color, single mothers are more likely to live in poverty than single fathers, and poverty is higher among single women without kids than it is among single men without kids.
Why are women more likely to experience poverty? Because on average, they will earn less money each year, and over the course of their lifetimes, than their male counterparts. A typical woman working from age 17 to 70 will earn over half-a-million dollars less than a typical man. Women, on average, make less money than men, and over the course of a career that adds up. But in a time when families depend more than ever on women’s wages, this is a troubling trend and it’s important to look into the causes so that policy can be effectively formulated to address this disparity.
Caregiving responsibilities often cost women wages
Though more families are now splitting household responsibilities, in the majority of families women are still the primary caregivers for children. Affordable child care is becoming less available in Oklahoma, and some families find that it makes more financial sense for one parent to leave their job and stay at home to care for children. When families make that decision, it is much more likely that the stay at home parent will be a woman. Women are also more likely to be called into service as caregivers for aging parents or other relatives. This often requires women to leave their jobs or cut back on hours, and this cuts their earnings. Even when the caregiving responsibility is temporary and women can return to work later, the temporary absence from the workforce still means that their lifetime earnings will be less than they would have been.
Oklahoma has made some strides in reducing wage disparities for caregivers with policies like paid family leave for state workers (adopted last year). But paid leave would be more helpful if it were available to all workers. We all get sick, and we all need time to care for our loved ones sometimes. Paid sick leave and family leave would be a boon for working women — it would mean they don’t have to take unpaid days off or leave their jobs to help care for children and loved ones.
A low minimum wage is especially harmful to women
Working full-time at minimum wage in Oklahoma brings in just $15,080 a year before taxes and withholding. After taxes, that leaves just over $1,000 a month to live on. Even with Oklahoma’s low cost of living, that’s not enough money, especially if there are children to support. The minimum wage needs to be higher — the current wage of $7.25 an hour has not been raised in almost a decade, and the minimum wage has been losing value for decades. In 1968 (its peak value), the minimum wage was only $1.60, but that equates to $11.55 in 2018 dollars. A minimum wage worker in the 1960s was better off, with nearly 60 percent more purchasing power than a minimum wage worker in Oklahoma today. Given that 7 in 10 minimum wage workers in Oklahoma are women, our low minimum wage is particularly problematic for women — even more so if they are supporting a family.
Unfortunately, despite a national trend toward a higher minimum wage, the Oklahoma Legislature has not recognized our low minimum wage as a real problem. Several bills have been introduced in recent sessions, including two this session, to raise our minimum wage and none have received consideration. In 2014, the Legislature made it impossible for local governments in the state to address this problem by prohibiting them from raising their minimum wage. But sometimes when policymakers refuse to act, citizens can — and we’ve told you before about other states that have raised their wages with a vote of the people.
Some women earn less because their employers pay them less
Most of us would likely say that it’s wrong for employers to pay women less than they pay men doing the same job. But research shows that women and men are often treated unequally in hiring, performance evaluations, and promotion decisions. Women do still face discrimination in the workplace, and this is part of the reason they make less than men on average.
If equal pay were a reality in Oklahoma, the poverty rate for working women in the state would be reduced almost by half and their earnings would increase by about $5.4 billion a year.
Pay discrimination continues to persist because it’s so difficult to discover. In many workplaces, workers don’t know how much everyone else is being paid — and asking for that information can put your job in jeopardy. In Oklahoma, an employee can be terminated for any reason, or for no reason at all, and this can make workers hesitant to share their wage information with one another. This secrecy is exactly the culture that fosters wage discrimination. If you don’t know what others are making, you can’t know if your own pay is fair.
For the past five years, advocates for pay transparency have introduced and supported legislation to clearly prohibit employers from retaliating against workers who share their wage information with others. Unfortunately, those efforts have, so far, been unsuccessful. But ending pay secrecy is a crucial part of closing the gender wage gap, and protection from retaliation would be a very positive step forward for women’s economic security.
Equal pay for women would reduce poverty for women and for their families
If equal pay were a reality in Oklahoma, the poverty rate for working women in the state would be reduced almost by half and their earnings would increase by about $5.4 billion a year. That’s money that could be spent on goods and services, building the local economy, or saved for an emergency. When women are paid fairly, it’s not just women that are better off. Their families are more economically secure, and our economy is healthier. Closing the gender wage gap should be a priority for all of us.