On the Poverty Of Women: In NY State, It's Increased

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In terms of income, work conditions and future opportunities, the situation of women who do the domestic work of cleaning homes and caring for children and the elderly forms the quintessential example of what's wrong with the economic status of women in New York state.

Domestic work is gender-segregated, meaning that nearly all those performing the work are women, and such jobs pay less than fields dominated by men. Domestic work is also primarily done by Latina and African American women and new immigrants – the three lowest-paid categories of workers. And domestic work is mostly unregulated, with overtime, paid sick or vacation days, health insurance, severance pay, child care and pensions basically unheard of in the industry. According to a report released last week by the Washington-based Institute for Women's Policy Research in partnership with the NYC-based New York Women's Foundation, the median annual earnings for child care workers in New York state ranges from $11,200 for Latinas to $21,400 for black women.

If that Latina making $11,200 does not have any dependents, than she is above the federal poverty standard of $10,400 for a one-person household and is not officially “poor” – even in expensive New York City – which was one critique embedded in the report, The Economic Status of Women in New York State.

Introducing the findings in a press conference at City Hall last week, Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) President Heidi Hartmann called the report “a tale of two states” – one in which women have attained more higher education, and enjoy a higher rate of business ownership than in many other places in the U.S., while “the other New York offers economic insecurity to far too many women who are … having a very hard time making ends meet.” Overall, Hartmann said, earnings have remained largely flat recently – her organization has done similar studies in years past – and women earn only 78.4 percent of what men do. Thus the state gets only a C+ grade both for “employment and earnings” and “social and economic autonomy.”

Ana Oliveira, president and CEO of the New York Women's Foundation, called on both government and activists to respond to the dreary data. Here, too, domestic workers are at the fore, with Domestic Workers United steering committee member Lois Newland telling the assembled “we need change in the system” – particularly state passage of the Domestic Workers' Bill of Rights, which provides for things like time off, health care and severance pay. Newland, a Brooklyn resident who cares for elderly clients, said later that the bill just failed for the fourth straight session of the Assembly. But she has hopes for next year because there's finally a sponsor in the Senate: Serphin Maltese, the Queens Republican.

The report, which is based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, finds that fewer women live above the federal poverty line now (or actually in 2005, when the most recent numbers are from), 84.8 percent, than in 1989, when it was 87.2 percent – now ranking New York 40th in the country. In earnings, the state also has fallen, from 5th place to 13th. More positive indicators include New York state's rank of 8th in the country for portion of women-owned businesses (29.6 percent) and 9th in the U.S. for women employed in managerial and professional jobs (35.4 percent). And although New York earned a C+ overall, no state got an A. Some top states for women's status in employment and earnings were Alaska, New Jersey and Virginia, with B's; West Virginia, Mississippi and Idaho got F's. For the social and economic autonomy index, Vermont, Minnesota and Hawaii were some of the B's; Kentucky and Texas both got a D-.

“I think the thing that's interesting is that you would expect New York to be better,” said report author Erica Williams, study director at IWPR. Other states have worse economies, fewer jobs, and more poverty, “but you don't expect that with a state like New York, because there is so much opportunity,” Williams said. “What I think this report makes clear is that opportunity is only available for some women.”

The New York Women's Foundation issued its own set of recommendations for evening out the inequalities both among groups of women, and between women and men, that are detailed in the report. From increasing access to income supports like the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Care Tax Credit, to encouraging employers to hire women for “nontraditional” and often-higher paying jobs like construction, to enacting laws guaranteeing all residents paid leave to care for sick family members, the recommendations touch on efforts that have had varying levels of success on the city and state levels.

As an invited speaker last Thursday, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Linda Gibbs told the group she was determined to help reduce poverty and increase equality for the city's women. Asked how, Gibbs released a statement today saying, “The Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) has a particular focus on the working poor – those New Yorkers who work hard each day but still have trouble making ends meet – which increasingly has included single women and working moms.” The CEO emphasizes the use of the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child Care Tax Credit and food stamps as a support for working poor families.

Meanwhile many parents and activists are concerned that a proposed restructuring of the city's publicly funded child care services will make child care harder to obtain and harm low-income parents and children. And at the state level, the Paid Family Leave Act (S.8428), which would provide salaried time off to care for sick family members – a job often done by women – is stalled.

Telling the group at City Hall about her support of the Paid Family Leave Act, State Sen. Liz Krueger noted that “men's health and equality is often very correlated to women's health and equality.” Krueger, a Democrat representing the Upper East Side, also said that that her legislation requiring female-male wage equity has failed, while “my Republican colleagues passed a bill to study the issue.”

One policy change that the Bloomberg administration promises is around the corner is a new local poverty standard, since most analysts agree the federal one is outdated and misleading. New York Women's Employment Center executive director Merble Reagon also said that by early 2009 there would be updated information for a local “Self-Sufficiency Standard,” which is another formula for calculating the cost of getting by – and thus how to help residents get there.

“When women are poor, so are their families and children,” said Fatima Goldman, executive director and CEO of the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. As leader of an agency that researches human services issues from HIV/AIDS to workforce development to elder care and more, Goldman said, “Sometimes I think we should throw out all our portfolios and work on poverty.”

– Karen Loew