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The Shriver Report and the SOTU

Maria Shriver, the media personality and former First Lady of California, is probably better known at this point than her parents. But she honors them both in her third edition of the Shriver Report,  A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, published just last week.

Maria Shiver’s father, Sargent Shriver, was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s handpicked architect for the War on Poverty. He had as much to do as Johnson himself with the creation of Head Start, the Job Corps, VISTA, Community Action Agencies, and several other programs. Maria Shriver’s mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founded the Special Olympics.

The Shriver Report, coming out as 2014 gets under way and the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, makes a critical point about income inequality. That point is that income inequality is an extension – an inseparable companion – of gender inequality.

Political leaders don’t talk a lot about poverty – and they talk even less about practical ways of reducing it. But income inequality has suddenly made an appearance in the debate over how to get the economy moving again after the Great Recession. This is an important step forward, because the persistence of poverty is inseparable from the persistence of income inequality.

President Obama is likely to make income inequality a key part of his State of the Union address on January 28. I don’t know if the president will reference the Shriver Report, but I hope he does; this report is especially worth highlighting because it makes the connections between income inequality and gender inequality. 

It obviously fuels income inequality when half of the work force is paid on average 77 cents for every dollar the other half is paid. Women are fully half of the work force, but they still earn less than men regardless of their level of experience, educational achievement, or ability to do a job as well as men.The gap is even wider when you factor in race and ethnicity.

  Wage-gap-over-time-womens-mens-ratio

At the start of the War on Poverty, women were earning less than 77 percent of what men were paid for the same work. There has definitely been progress. But the slow gains made between 1970 and 2000 have stalled since the turn of the century. Moreover, the relative gains had a lot to do with lower wages for men rather than higher wages for women.

The current national debate on income inequality focuses largely on the concentration of wealth among the top 1 percent. What the Shriver Report does so well is to place the changes in the economy within the context of more gender-specific social changes over the last 50 years. Two of the biggest changes have been (1) the increasing share of women in the workforce and (2) the rise in the share of single-parent families, which are overwhelmingly headed by mothers.

It is refreshing to see how the Shriver Report treats the latter. The typical response to the fact that single parenting is so common now is to mourn the decline of two-parent families and fret about what can be done to keep the fathers and mothers of children together. The Shriver Report takes what I believe is a more realistic view, arguing that enabling single-parent families to be successful can be done most effectively by improving policies that allow them (and all families) to better balance the responsibilities of work and caregiving.

The saddest results have come from how slowly our policymakers have been moving to adapt to the change. The United States has one of the highest child poverty rates in the developed world, but it’s not among the developed countries with the highest shares of births out of wedlock. See images below. Family friendly policies make the difference. As my colleague Derek Schwabe discussed in a recent blog post, the United States is the only developed country without a policy of paid maternity leave.

   Child poverty

  Oecd-illegitimacy-rates-2009

An unsettling rise in the share of single parent families occurred in the 1970s and 1980s for a variety of reasons. The share of families led by a single parent has been mostly stable since then as you can see below. I sometimes wonder whether the U.S. government’s lack of support for family-friendly policies on child care, maternity leave, and paid family leave and sick leave is motivated at least partly by hostility to single parenting. Unfortunately, denying single parents help in these areas holds all women back.

   DOJ
Caregiving responsibilities in families still fall disproportionately on women. Among countries with the most developed economies, U.S. women used to have the 6th highest workforce participation rate. Today, the United States ranks 17th. Other developed countries surged ahead because they adopted policies that were more family friendly.

To reduce income inequality, we will ultimately have to enable families to combine work and parenting in better ways. It’s not as though women will be returning to work as full-time unpaid caregivers. One income can no longer keep a family securely in the middle class. Moreover, U.S. women are now finishing high school and college at higher rates than their male peers, and they want to use their education and training. Women’s work is vital to the country’s economic recovery, so policymakers have every reason to adopt family friendly policies that will enable women to contribute to their full potential. Todd Post

« SNAP: It's There When You Need It SOTU 2014: Obama, Africa, and the Pope »

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