As someone who has spent the better part of my life fighting for fair pay for women, I believe it’s always a good time to talk about the pay gap. But the topic is especially important now—and the timing has little to do with Equal Pay Day on April 9.
Equal Pay Day is the symbolic date when women’s wages finally catch up to men’s from the year before—this year, it just happens to fall amid sequestration and passage of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wisc.) budget in the House. Both disproportionately slash programs that help women and their families. Women already earn less on average than men, and now programs they depend on to help make ends meet are being cut. These seemingly never-ending budget battles are compounding what is already a pernicious problem.
Yet somehow the pay gap went largely overlooked as the dramatic spending cuts known as sequestration went into effect. Sequestration harms women and girls through cuts to K–12 funding, higher-education programs, work-force training, funding for agencies that enforce civil rights protections like equal pay, women’s health programs, and programs that promote getting more women into high-wage science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers—just to name a few.
How is the average woman who loses out on thousands of dollars in wages each year due to the gap supposed to make up for cuts to these programs? Easy answer: She can’t. And neither can her family. Make no mistake, equal pay is a family issue.
And then we have the Ryan budget, which slashes nondefense spending by trillions of dollars, mostly by cutting programs that benefit women, students and families. Ryan’s budget cuts Pell Grants and other college aid, Head Start, job training, Medicare, Medicaid, and funding for civil-rights enforcement. And it repeals the Affordable Care Act, which provides critical, no-cost preventive benefits for women.
I recognize that Congress is grappling with tough budgetary tradeoffs, but our ability to access basic education and health care cannot be sacrificed. As American Association of University Women research shows, women already have a harder time paying back student loans because of the pay gap. Now the aid they depend on to go to college is in jeopardy.
We mark Equal Pay Day as an opportunity to educate the public and demand action. This year, Congress took action on policies that exacerbate the pay gap’s impact and put the economic security of American families at risk. Thankfully, Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) budget blueprint took the Senate in a more moderate direction, sharing the sacrifice and working to help the most vulnerable among us. Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) budget amendment insists we make equal pay a budgetary priority, but we still need stronger laws to fulfill that promise—laws like the still un-passed Paycheck Fairness Act.
I can’t state it more plainly: The pay gap hasn’t budged in 10 years. And when you compare women and men in the same job doing the same work, we still find a gap. This inequality affects women’s wages today and their retirements tomorrow, and it weakens our national economy. It’s past time for real change.
This Equal Pay Day, ask your politicians one question: Will you finally take action to fix a problem that affects women and their families every day?
Make the answer good. Women are watching, and we’re tired of waiting.
Maatz has served as AAUW's director of public policy and government relations since 2003.
American Forum. 4/13