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Obama vs. McCain on Equal Pay

Both candidates say they favor equal pay, but how do they vote?
 
 
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While media covers the economic bailout plan in great detail, few outlets have paid attention to how working women and families are doing in the face of an economic crisis. Economic issues like pay discrimination, paid family and medical leave, and flexible work hours get little attention or lip service from pundits. But the candidates running for president this year have very different views on these issues. The debates have the opportunity to highlight or hide their stances on issues important to women. In addition to watching what they say on the debates, it's important to see where they stand on issues important to working women and families.

Last year the Supreme Court ruled that Lilly Ledbetter wasn't entitled to a dime after nearly 20 years of pay discrimination because she didn't file her lawsuit within six-months of the first discriminatory paycheck, making it far more difficult for women to sue for pay discrimination and signaling a huge setback for women's pay equality. This April, the Senate voted on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, something that would essentially reverse the Supreme Court's decision by making each new paycheck subject to a discrimination lawsuit. This is after decades of the pay gap remaining stagnant. But Republican presidential candidate John McCain didn't show up for the vote. Instead, he said that women "need more education and training" on the campaign trail. He also said that the legislation would create "problems" with current lawsuits.

His running mate, Sarah Palin, said something similar in a recent interview with Katie Couric. Even though Palin is "absolutely for equal pay for equal work," she also believes that the legislation, again, which simply would change the law back to what it was for years before the Supreme Court's decision, "was gonna turn into a boon for trial lawyers who, I believe, could have taken advantage of women who were many, many years ago who would allege some kind of discrimination. Thankfully, there are laws on the books, there have been since 1963, that no woman could be discriminated against in the workplace in terms of anything, but especially in terms of pay. So, thankfully we have the laws on the books and they better be enforced."

But here seems to be the problem. Pay discrimination is an incredibly difficult thing to prove, and gathering evidence of discrimination often takes far longer than six months. Women are often unaware that they are being discriminated against for years. In Ledbetter's case, she had no idea that she was making less than her male co-workers until someone left an anonymous note in her locker. Because other benefits figure into your salary, like Social Security and retirement, Ledbetter is continuing to pay for a decision made years ago. The only way to better enforce the laws, it seems, is to make sure that discrimination can be challenged in court. By making it more difficult to sue, as the Supreme Court ruled, they're actually ensuring that the laws are less likely to be enforced effectively.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama outlined an economic plan especially for women (PDF), and made passage of the Fair Pay Restoration Act part of the proposed economic changes that would help women explicitly. He also co-sponsored the bill. The plan also outlined raising the minimum wage, requiring employers to provide seven days of paid sick leave, and expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Obama said at a speech geared toward working women in New Mexico this June, "As the son of a single mother, I also don't accept an America that makes women choose between their kids and their careers. It's not acceptable that women are denied jobs or promotions because they've got kids at home. It's not acceptable that forty percent of working women don't have a single paid sick day." McCain voted for the original Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, but his campaign has not proposed any initiatives to expand or support paid family leave or sick days.

Minimum wage (PDF) is important simply because so many women earn it. Nearly 60 percent of the people that benefited from the minimum wage increase last year were women. McCain has voted against increasing the minimum wage 19 times until he voted in favor of the legislation that was passed last year. At the time, he voted in favor of filibustering the legislation that sought to increase the minimum wage, but in the end ended up voting in favor of increasing the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. In an interview this August, he said, "I'm for the minimum wage increases when they are not attached to other big-spending pork barrel." He has, however, voted in favor of increasing the minimum wage when it is tied to war spending bills, like the legislation last year. 

Each candidate has also proposed a tax cut plan. An analysis by the Tax Policy Center shows that McCain's plan would cut taxes overall by nearly $4.2 trillion and Obama's plan would cut taxes overall by $2.9 trillion from 2009-2018. But the important thing to look at is the distribution of those tax cuts. A graph produced in the report shows that Obama's plan would result in an increase of post-tax income based on which income shows an increase among all but the top one percent of taxpayers. McCain's plan shows increases in post-tax income in all brackets, but the increases in the lowest quintile is much small than the increases for the top one percent. 

Income inequality in America is on the rise; some say the inequality is the greatest the country has experienced since the Gilded Age following World War I. Women still earn, on average 77 cents to every dollar a man earns, and little has been done to help working families with more flexible schedules (especially among hourly wage earners) in the last decade. Amid the debate over the bailout bill and the economic crisis, not enough has been said about ensuring that working families can maintain a quality of life and that women can earn greater income parity in the workplace. Economic issues are important to break down in all respects, especially those that are important to women and families.

Kay Steiger is an Associate Editor at Campus Progress.