Wage Gap Between Men and Women Closing For Wrong Reason: Male Wages Are Falling

The wage gap between men and women is finally starting to close—but only because male wages are falling, according to a new briefing paper released Tuesday by the Economic Policy Institute.


“No one in this country should work full-time and live in poverty,” said Massachsetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren at a Capitol Hill press conference to release the report, which sets forth a policy agenda for both closing the gender wage gap and boosting bargaining power for low- and moderate-income workers. Also on hand were House Democrat Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, and labor organizers with the AFL-CIO and the SEIU.

Dubbed “Closing the Pay Gap and Beyond,” the EPI white paper and manifesto found that despite a shrinking gender wage gap, wage gains have remained stagnant over the last decade. In 1979, median hourly earnings for women were 62.7 percent of men’s hourly wages. That gap narrowed in the two decades that followed, but since 2000 it has hovered in the 80 percent rage. In 2014, women’s median hourly earnings were 82.9 percent of men’s.

The wage gap is more severe for women of color, the report found. On average, white female workers make 81.8 percent of a man’s hourly wage, compared to 65.1 percent for black women and 58.9 percent for Hispanic women.

“The problem we have is not just in one little area or one specific group,” said Warren. “This is across education levels, this is across occupations, this is across income levels [where] women are persistently paid less than men.”

The EPI paper spells out out a dozen policies aimed at closing the gender wage gap by promoting broad-based wage growth across the board. These include increasing the minimum wage, restoring collective-bargaining rights, and expanding access to paid family and sick leave.

Raising the minimum wage is of particular importance to women, the report argues, because women make up the majority of the largest low-wage professions, which include child-care work, cashiers, bartenders, and food preparers.

Participants, who included AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and SEIU Executive Vice President Rocio Saenz, also spelled out a political strategy to achieve their goals. Tuesday’s event came just a week after a string of nationwide strikes by Fight for $15, the minimum wage campaign organized and partly underwritten by the SEIU. The campaign has been credited with local victories in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco and state-level proposals and executive orders in California, New York, and Oregon.    

“The commitment to continue building this movement will stay all the way to 2016, from the streets to the ballot box,” declared Saez.

The report also found that productivity and wages, which grew in tandem from the middle of the last century until the mid-1970s, are no longer linked. Between 1979 and 2014, productivity grew 62.7 percent, while hourly compensation only grew 8 percent.

Interestingly, though, the only earnings gains in that time period were for women. While white women saw a 30.2 percent increase in hourly median wages, between 1979 and 2014, white men saw their wages shrink by 3.1 percent, according to the report. And while black women saw a more modest increase of 12.8 percent, black men saw an alarming 9.8 percent wage decrease.

“The truth is that the policy agenda we’ve outlined is good for women and men,” said Valerie Wilson, Director of EPI’s Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy.

The report estimates that 40 percent of the progress made in closing the wage gap since 1979 was due to men’s falling wages.

“It didn’t have to be this way and it doesn’t have to be that way moving forward,” said Elise Gould, an EPI senior economist who coauthored the paper. “It’s clear that gender wage parity does not improve women’s economic prospects to the greatest possible extent if wages for men and women remain equal, but stagnant into the future.”

It remains to be seen whether calls for a minimum wage increase, for one, will translate into policy action. Though Saenz stressed the importance of a higher minimum wage, the SEIU recently announced its support for Hillary Clinton, who has demurred from supporting a federal minimum wage of $15, instead advocating for $12. This move and other Clinton endorsements by large unions have caused some consternation among rank-and-file members.

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