Fair Pay is a Better Way

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Lilly Ledbetter, a factory worker who was paid less than men doing the same job for 20 years, speaks with Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights just off the Senate floor in the Capitol, Wednesday, April 23, 2008.

The Senate voted this week to move forward on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but fell four votes short of the 60 needed to do so. The Act would remedy a Supreme Court decision that kicked a pay discrimination case filed by Lilly Ledbetter out of court because she did not file her lawsuit within six months of when the alleged discrimination began—even though she was not aware of the inequity until much later.

Conservatives who blocked the measure claimed that it would increase lawsuits over outdated cases, despite the fact that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission routinely measured the time limit for complaints from the point at which the employee first learned of the discrimination.

The Senate’s resistance to ensuring enforcement of our fair pay laws is an extremely shortsighted response, especially in light of how hard women are getting hit in the current economic recession. In fact, all that conservatives seem ready to offer women to help them get out or stay out of poverty is … marriage.

Just last week, a consortium of conservative “marriage movement” groups issued a report claiming that unwed childbearing, and divorced women cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Based on research that showed marriage would lift approximately 60 percent of female-headed households out of poverty, the groups concluded that an increased marriage rate would reduce poor women and their children’s need for and use of public benefit programs—not to mention their eligibility for such programs.

What the report failed to examine is why marriage would be more of an economic boon to women than men in the first place. Perhaps it has something to do with pay discrimination. The average woman earns 77 cents for every dollar the average man makes, and unmarried women earn even less—only 56 cents for every dollar that married men make. If women were paid fair wages for equal work, then maybe they wouldn’t need to get married just to stay afloat in today’s economy.

In these times of rising food prices, high energy costs, and increased unemployment rates, low-income families—especially those headed by single women—are finding it more difficult to meet their basic needs. Our focus should be on poverty reduction strategies that help all families, whether or not they are married. While it would be good to increase the share of children in healthy, low-conflict married families, marriage decisions are complicated and highly personal decisions. The government is in no position to decide when marriage is or is not the right thing for an individual.

Comprehensive approaches to address the economic security of both married and unmarried parents will increase opportunities for low-income families as well as remove many of the obstacles low-income adults face in creating and sustaining successful marriages. Ensuring that working women receive decent and fair pay ought to be the foundation of any real effort to reduce poverty and strengthen families.