It’s Not Just a Pay Gap: Women Are at Higher Risk of Downward Economic Mobility Than Men

Democrats are highlighting the gender pay gap. But economic inequalities are more complicated than just paychecks.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) speaks during a press conference to urge Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, on Capitol Hill April 1, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
April 8, 2014, 8:12 a.m.

Sen­ate Demo­crats and Pres­id­ent Obama are spend­ing much of this week try­ing to rally sup­port for the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, which would at­tempt to de­crease the pay gap between men and wo­men by, among oth­er things, mak­ing it il­leg­al for em­ploy­ers to pun­ish em­ploy­ees for talk­ing about their com­pens­a­tion. The ac­tion sur­round­ing the bill is all about mes­saging: It has vir­tu­ally no chance of be­com­ing law, but it could serve as a polit­ic­al fo­cus for the 2014 midterm cam­paign.

But the way the bill is be­ing sold to the pub­lic doesn’t get at the full pic­ture of the eco­nom­ic in­equal­ity between men and wo­men. It’s not just about the pay gap, where wo­men make either 77 per­cent or 82 per­cent of what men make, de­pend­ing on who you ask.

Eco­nom­ic mo­bil­ity is dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent for daugh­ters than it is for sons.

Ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion, daugh­ters in all eco­nom­ic groups from 2001 to 2009 were work­ing more hours and earn­ing great­er hourly wages than their moth­ers did from 1968 to 1972, ac­cord­ing to new re­search from the Pew Char­it­able Trusts.

 That trans­lates to a great­er over­all per­cent­age wage in­crease than sons made over that peri­od com­pared with their fath­ers. So that’s the good news for eco­nom­ic equal­ity. The bad news: Across all wage quin­tiles, daugh­ters over the same time peri­od are still earn­ing less than their fath­ers did roughly 30 years ago by me­di­an hourly wage, ad­jus­ted for in­fla­tion.

To look at the is­sue a bit dif­fer­ently: While a large ma­jor­ity of wo­men now make more than wo­men did 30-plus years ago, a much smal­ler per­cent­age of wo­men are now earn­ing more than men did back then.

That said, the gender pay gap has shrunk dra­mat­ic­ally in the past 30 years — Pew has the shrink­age at 20 cents an hour, down to 16 cents today from 36 cents in 1980. But the mo­bil­ity pic­ture over that time frame is hazi­er across genders. As Richard V. Reeves and Joanna Ven­at­or re­cently laid out at Brook­ings, it’s just a bit harder for wo­men to be up­wardly mo­bile than it is for men.

Wo­men born to par­ents in the low­est-in­come quin­tile are much more likely to stay there than men born to par­ents at the bot­tom are, and they’re less likely than those men to make it to some of the high­er quin­tiles:


And nearly across the eco­nom­ic board, wo­men are at a great­er risk of down­ward mo­bil­ity than men are.


Eco­nom­ic fair­ness between genders isn’t just about the dif­fer­ence in an hourly wage. It’s also about how the over­all eco­nomy treats men and wo­men, what risks they see, and what chances they see for im­prove­ment over past gen­er­a­tions. It’s about pay, but it’s also about the chances of suc­cess, es­pe­cially for wo­men who are single moth­ers. Over the last sev­er­al dec­ades, wo­men have not seen the same eco­nom­ic ad­vant­ages as men. It’s a more com­plic­ated prob­lem. But Con­gress is ex­tremely un­likely to do any­thing to al­ter paychecks, so there’s no real reas­on to think Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans will be able to find com­mon ground to ad­dress mo­bil­ity.

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