Why women would benefit from raising the minimum wage

Fighting for $15 an hour in Durham

Nearly 175 people rallied in Durham on Labor Day for higher wages and union representation for fast-food and other service workers.
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Nearly 175 people rallied in Durham on Labor Day for higher wages and union representation for fast-food and other service workers.

Although often discussed as a relatively recent phenomenon, the truth is that women—especially poor women, women of color, rural women, immigrant women, and single women— have always had to work outside of the home to provide some measure of economic security for themselves and their families.

And while more high-paying jobs and careers have, happily, opened up for some women in recent decades, economic options for most continue to be clustered in the low-wage service, retail, and “caring” (home health, child, elder care) industries.

Today, this kind of “women’s work” provides critical support to the almost two-thirds of North Carolina households that include a working woman. Women’s earning power is and always has been a key to making sure families can pay their bills, particularly families of color. That’s why raising the minimum wage (the federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour) is so important—it puts more money in the pockets of the women whose paychecks are vital to helping support themselves and their families.

In 2018 there are still inaccurate ideas that persist, keeping us from recognizing the important role women’s work and their wages play in keeping North Carolina families financially afloat. One such belief is that all women have (or need) a man in their family who is supporting them. But the fact is that women are the primary breadwinners in more than 40 percent of North Carolina families.

Similarly, a closely related set of beliefs is seen in the way that society constantly devalues what is considered “women’s work.” Serving food, housekeeping, providing assistance for everyday tasks, caring for children, the elderly and the frail—this is work that has also traditionally been done without pay by women in the home. When performed outside of the home, however, this work is clearly useful and necessary, although it is not often compensated in that way.

A robust “caring industry” also allows for others in society to pursue successful careers in a variety of high paying industries. This “women’s work” has so much value in our society—both in terms of the skills and overall productivity it provides—that it deserves better than the low wages typically paid to workers clustered in “pink collar” jobs.

Another myth about women’s service industry work holds that low-wage jobs were never meant to sustain a family, and were instead designed with teenagers and young adults just getting started in mind. This is just not true in today’s North Carolina economy. A recent study found that more than 90 percent of the people who would benefit from raising the minimum wage are over age 20; almost two-thirds of these workers are women; and approximately 20 percent of these women have children. More than 1.5 million children would see their parents benefit from raising the minimum wage.

Yet this myth has allowed less ethical companies to exploit their workers by building low wages into their business plans. Raising the minimum wage will raise the economic security of these families.

Raising the minimum wage will also help spur the economy. Low-wage jobs have accounted for more than half of the new jobs created in North Carolina since the end of the Great Recession in 2009. And while small businesses have always been tough to get off the ground, many of these low-wage jobs are part of already well-established, multi-billion dollar industries that are driving our country’s economic engine.

Putting more money in the pockets of working women (many of whom make the key spending decisions for their families) puts more money back into the economy. It can also help provide the extra boost that many women need in order to seek additional training, advance their careers, and achieve even greater economic security.

Raising the minimum wage is what women want. At first glance, it may not seem like a traditional “women’s empowerment” message, but it is a direct way to lift thousands upon thousands of North Carolina women and families out of poverty.

Women’s work has always contributed to our economy’s success, and it’s time we placed a proper value on it.

Charnessa Ridley is president of NC Women United.