By Natalie K. Midiri
To say that poverty is a women’s issue is an understatement. Nearly 25% of full-time jobs in the U.S. do not pay well enough to lift a family out of poverty, and 66% of those jobs are done primarily by women. In addition, the changing nature of work and increased categorization of workers as temporary or independent contractors hits women hard. Women in low-wage work are disproportionately adult women of color who are caring for children without aid from a partner. Very few have paid sick days, any sort of retirement plan, or even consistent workplace safety regulation.
Let us look at home-based childcare providers, for example, although we could as easily look at home health aides or house cleaners. In one of its few positive outcomes, Bill Clinton’s destruction of “welfare as we know it” greatly expanded publicly subsidized home-based childcare. This expansion provided jobs for poor women in their own neighborhoods, where they could be home with their own children while caring for those of their neighbors.
This might have been a positive way for some women to strike a balance between working and caring for their children, except that 50% of the caregivers in the child care industry receive poverty-level wages, making childcare the industry with the most workers earning wages below the poverty line in the United States. It is no accident that the work force is 95% female. In New York City, for example, the women who do this work typically average about $9 an hour, compared with $15 for preschool teachers and $30 for kindergarten teachers in similar neighborhoods. Salaries are even lower in other areas, such as Oregon, where home-based caregivers can make as little as $2.35 per hour per child (with a legal maximum of three children), and I speak here only of state-sponsored care, not unregulated, informal arrangements.
What keeps these women’s wages so low? One problem is that across the country most women who provide home-based childcare are classified as independent contractors, even though their wages are paid by the state. Thus, they are not protected by the minimum wage, are not entitled to paid time off, and have little long-term job security. They receive the market rate in their communities, which keeps their wages artificially low, because most people living in poverty live in poor neighborhoods and do not have the benefit of wealthier families around to raise the market rate.
Childcare providers are not the only women participating in the formal economy without such basic protections as the minimum wage. Eldercare providers as well as house cleaners can be legally classified as independent contractors, too, and many employers, especially in industries like home health care, illegally misclassify women as independent contractors to avoid responsibility for worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, overtime, health care coverage, and vacation time. This lack of protection dates to the New Deal, which provided some workers with protections, but exempted much “women’s work” because southern legislators did not want to lose the low-wage workers in their homes and fields.
The precarious nature of low-wage work means that thousands of call-center operators, receptionists, substitute teachers, teachers’ aides, and healthcare workers lose additional wages every time they must take a day off from work to care for children too sick for daycare.
Small inroads have been made, especially in publicizing the issues, as home-based care providers are increasingly joining existing teachers’ unions, as in New York, where 12,000 caregivers are now represented by the United Federation of Teachers. It is time to go beyond the New Deal or the War on Poverty of the last century. Our existing approach to labor regulation relies too heavily on notions of standard full-time employment, leaving entire categories of workers engaged in part-time work, temp work, and independent contracting, let alone work in the informal economy, without the very basic benefits typically associated with work. All workers are at risk, but women will continue to be those most vulnerable to poverty as long as we fail to protect “women’s work.”
Natalie K. Midiri runs a preschool co-op in Collingswood, N.J., and is an active member of Philadelphia DSA.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership.