Thursday, October 4, 2012

Musings on the NOW Conference: Improving Employment and Opportunities for Low Wage Workers and Women of Color

This post is part of a series discussing the 2012 National Organization for Women (NOW) Conference: Energize! Organize! Stop the War on Women.

On Saturday morning, I attended a session that was part of the Mothers and Caregivers Summit titled Improving Employment and Opportunities for Low Wage Workers and Women of Color. According to the NOW conference website, “This summit…spotlight[s] the work of those who form the backbone of all societies: mothers and caregivers. Because women throughout time have been expected to automatically assume the responsibilities of child rearing and caregiving, the importance of these roles is overlooked and dramatically under-valued in our culture. The Mothers and Caregivers Summit, co-sponsored this year by NOW Foundation and the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR), will feature ideas about how mothers’ and caregivers’ contributions can be properly recognized and valued.” I was unable to take notes on this session, since it was Shabbat (the Sabbath) and Orthodox Jews are prohibited to write, but I’ll do my best to share what was said and my impressions of the session.

This session was moderated by Claudia Williams, a research analyst at IWPR. The other speakers were Jeff Hayes, senior research associate at IWPR; Jane Henrici, study director at IWPR; and Matt Unrath, Wider Opportunity for Women (WOW)’s director of national programs.

The session began by addressing the importance of raising the minimum wage, especially for tipped workers. A couple months ago there was a big push to raise the minimum wage, I remember signing numerous petitions to make this happen. Unfortunately, I don’t believe it ever did, and it’s stagnant at $7.25. This session demonstrated the real need to raise the amount. Tipped workers make a mere $2.13 an hour, which is certainly not enough to support a single person, let alone a family. It’s not right to make a tipped worker, about two-thirds of whom are women, to depend on tips, since some weeks may bring in hundreds while other times very little is earned.

They also discussed the importance of establishing STEM programs for young mothers, especially at the community college level, so that they can get raining for a good job rather than getting stuck at a dead-end, low-paying position with no skills or hopes of advancement. While I don’t remember details, they presented a convincing argument for funneling millions of dollars into establishing these kinds of programs. That is, until they mentioned that a high percentage of women enrolled in already-existing programs of this kind drop out after a year. Personally, if this is the case, I don’t understand the point. Before we take taxpayers’ money and spend it on establishing new programs, we should pinpoint the reasons why women are dropping out of ones that are already around, fix the problems, and bring the graduation rate up. Then, and only then, should new programs be established. Otherwise, the money spent on these women is totally wasted, and could have been better used on a different cause.

Another speaker presented the BEST tables, a measure of the basic needs and assets workers require for economic security throughout a lifetime and across generations. While I understand that a point of reference is necessary for the government to know who needs the most help to stay afloat, I really take issue with the current system. Just because a person has an income that’s relatively high doesn’t mean that they can afford their basic needs. Need shouldn’t be determined by income, but by the difference between income and basic living expenses (rent, food, phone, etc., in addition to more unusual unique expenses, like paying for a nursing home for an immediate family member).

Although I did not necessarily see eye to eye with every point that the speakers presented, this was an interesting session to attend. I really did learn a lot from it about where mothers and caregivers are in term of wages and professions. I certainly hope that the measures they presented will prove to be effective in remedying women’s unfair situation in these matters.

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