In 1914, Henry Ford changed his pay system so that his auto assembly line workers could earn up to $5 per day. Most people believe he wanted each employee to be able to buy a Model T, thereby boosting sales.
The reality was more fundamental: the number of additional sales would not have been substantial, but he did expect expensive employee turnover to drop. His plan succeeded, and his idea, that a better wage would boost worker productivity and the economy is still solid, when applied nationally. Most of us only buy or lease a car every few years. We do buy food, clothes, and other goods and services pretty much when we can afford them.
Bureau of Labor Statistics wage data make it clear: There are two places in our economy where change would benefit everyone. First is to implement true pay equity, regardless of gender. The other is to raise the minimum wage so that a single wage earner can support a family above the poverty line. As it happens, the primary, immediate beneficiaries of these changes would be American women in the workforce.
Overall, women earn 77 cents on the dollar for the same work as men. However, behind this statistic are several that say even more about the need for pay equity. According to the latest analysis by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 3.3 million Americans working at the minimum wage. Of these, 63 percent are women, and most do not have a spouse who could provide additional income.
What does this mean, in practical terms? At the current federal minimum wage, $7.25/hour, if a woman managed to work all 52 weeks this year, 40 hours every week, she would earn $15,080. This is below the current poverty level for a two-person household. Some of these women are mothers. Others support elderly parents and disabled family members. Societally, we all pay the cost of low and unequal pay. It is a pay me now or pay me later.
If we assure wage equity, and a truly living wage, families will have better housing and nutrition and will be able to afford — but have less need — for health insurance. Children will perform better in better-funded schools and lead more productive, adult lives for it.
In 1980, the Reagan administration declared an economic policy that argued that if the well-off get to keep more of their wealth — earned, inherited, or through capital gains, enough of that wealth would trickle down and make life comfortable for all. After 35 years, we have not yet seen trickle-down. Instead, we have seen a monetary tsunami defying gravity and flowing up to the 1 percent.
If we want pay equity, if we want millions of hard-working women (and men), living below poverty, to achieve health, food and housing security for themselves and their families, we need a change. Furthermore, as the financial well-being of American women improves, life for American men will also benefit.
What do we need to make it happen? We need to change Congress, and in Pennsylvania, we need to start with the 2016 election for the U.S. Senate seat that Pat Toomey holds. Sen. Toomey consistently opposes legislation that would improve pay for all hard-working Americans, but especially for women. Since joining the Senate, he filibustered and voted against the Paycheck Fairness Act. He has filibustered and voted against legislation to raise the federal minimum wage. He opposed the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, from his position at the Club for Growth.
On pay equity for women and fair pay for all, Joe Sestak is everything Toomey is not. As a congressman, he co-sponsored and voted for both Paycheck Fairness and Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay. He voted to raise the minimum wage in 2007 by $1.40 to the current $7.25, and he supports raising it again — now.
On Nov. 8, 2016, we have a choice. We can settle for six more years of a Republican-dominated U.S. Senate, consistently anti-woman and anti-worker. We can do better by electing Joe Sestak, who will fight to improve the economy for all Americans.