BY MARY SWANN PARRY The NC Women’s Summit took place on October 15th at UNC-CH, a collaboration of Women AdvaNCe and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC-CH. Women from counties across the state attended to discuss what’s at stake for women and families in North Carolina.
Women outnumber men in the North Carolina workforce. Nearly half of working women serve as their family’s primary bread-winner. Yet one-in-five women in North Carolina live in poverty. What is wrong with this picture? Dr. Jacquelyn Hall, founding director of the UNC Oral History Program, led a panel of experts who discussed why women in North Carolina face so many hurdles trying to make ends meet.
Pay inequality and job structure make it difficult for women to keep up, according to Alexandra Sirota, Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center. “Women earn 83 cents on the dollar. That’s a deficit of half-a-million dollars over the span of her career,” said Sirota. “A growing share of available jobs are part-time or temporary, and women are taking these jobs because they can’t find full-time work.”
One out of two single mothers lives in poverty in our state. Dr. Rachel Willis, professor of American Studies at UNC-CH, points to family issues as a top contributor. “Childcare is the number one constraint facing working women,” said Willis. How can we expect the 20% of NC women living in poverty to pull themselves up into economic stability without job benefits and other supports that make working possible? And how many more women are at risk for falling into poverty when family issues alter their ability to work?
Women in marginalized groups struggle the most. We’re still losing jobs in rural North Carolina even four years into the economic recovery, according to Sirota.
Our state also has one of the fastest growing groups of immigrants. Those who find opportunities work as dishwashers, cooks, cleaners, construction workers, and farm workers. “Pork and poultry processing offers the highest job demand for immigrants in North Carolina,” said Brittany Chavez, Latin American Studies doctoral student at UNC-CH. These wage-per-hour jobs don’t offer salaries that adequately cover the cost of living.
Panelists agreed that state and federal policy changes are required to make it possible for more women and their families to succeed in today’s economy.
Policy Changes at the Federal Level:
- The 2013 Fair Minimum Wage Act, currently under consideration, would increase wage standards to $10.10 per hour by 2016.
- Expansion of The Family Act could help workers get 66% of their wages for a period of time, covering maternity and paternity leave, as well as care for parents and spouses who need it.
Policy Changes in North Carolina:
- The Caregiver Relief Act, currently under consideration, would extend the protections of the Family Medical Leave Act to allow eligible employees to care for a sibling, grandparent, grandchild, step-parent, or parent-in-law.
- The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) helped put money back into the pockets of low- and moderate-income working families, but it was recently eliminated by North Carolina legislators.
“The EITC is the single greatest anti-poverty measure we have,” said Messersmith. She argues that women’s economic issues shouldn’t be considered partisan: “You need childcare and you deserve fair pay, regardless of your political affiliation.”
Equal pay and family benefits don’t seem like a lot to ask, but women have been speaking up about these issues for decades without much success, according to Joey Fink, Women and Gender Studies doctoral candidate at UNC-CH. “Since the 1970s, we’ve seen a stagnation of wages and a rising cost of living. Women have had to fight hard for tiny, incremental gains.”
Fortunately, today’s women are poised to get the results we want—if we realize the strength of our numbers. There are now more women than men in the NC workforce, and women make up more than half of our state’s voters. We know what women need to succeed in today’s economy and we have the numbers to sway elections. We can create real change if we speak up together about issues like equal pay, affordable childcare, paid sick days, access to healthcare and to jobs that pay a living wage.
Panelists urged NC women to keep this list of action items at the top of their to-do list to help create change in our state:
- Always vote and help others access their right to vote.
- Help women candidates win elections. When we lose women’s representation, we lose women’s voices.
- Let legislators know how you feel about policies affecting women and families – give them a call, write them a letter, or make an appointment to meet them in person.
- Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper.
- Stay connected through Women AdvaNCe and start your own AdvaNCe Team.
Your opinion and your vote are not isolated or insignificant. Women make up 54% of the state electorate and are valuable contributors to our economy. Add your voice to these state and national conversations and amplify the message to legislators that women have earned a seat at the table and we want a fair shake.
Jobs & Economy Panelists:
Brittany Chavez, Latin American Studies Ph.D. Candidate at UNC
Joey Fink, Women’s and Gender History Ph.D. Candidate at UNC
Dr. Jacquelyn Hall, Founding Director of the UNC Southern Oral History Program
Beth Messersmith, NC Campaign Director at MomsRising.Org
Alexandra Sirota, Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center
Dr. Rachel Willis, Professor of American Studies at UNC