In President Barack Obama’s State of the Union (SOU) address, he appealed to our nation’s employers to raise wages from the current minimum of $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour. He has already signed an executive order that requires federal contractors to pay $10.10 an hour, an only appropriate move since so many workers on federal contracts are living in poverty. The plight of federal contract workers at the bottom is especially galling, given that CEOs at the top have no limits in what they can be paid. Many earn more than President Obama’s $400,000 salary. They are awarded contracts by coming up with a minimum bid, which too often means paying people the lowest wage they can get away with.
There are many consequences to workers earning so little money that they often work at a level below the poverty line. The federal government through food stamps, subsidized health care, and a number of other well-deserved benefits subsidizes those with families and low wages. They are also stigmatized by receiving government help. Why not pay these folks enough to make it on their own, instead of railing about those who “depend” on the government?
When women with children earn a minimum wage, they are challenged to take care of their children. If there is not affordable childcare, or a family support system, many of these women are desperate to figure out a way to work and also find someone to take care of their children. In Henrico county, Virginia, which is part of the Richmond, Virginia Statistical Metropolitan District, 23-year-old Brittney R. Downing admitted her role in the deaths of her two children, aged three months and 20 months.
Brittney Downing left her children in a parking lot, inside her vehicle, while she went to work at a Henrico hotel. Both of her children were affected by heat stroke. Her 20-month-old son died first, her daughter four days later. She is charged with involuntary manslaughter and can spend as many as 25 years in jail.
Brittney’s children are collateral damage in the war against women and minimum wage workers. As President Obama noted in the SOU address, women are the majority of minimum wage workers. All of them aren’t teens; many are raising children. Too many of them don’t earn enough to sustain themselves. Brittney Downing’s children, Jelani and Jade, died partly because their mother didn’t earn enough to put them in an affordable child care program.
Some will say that Brittney Downing should have had better sense than to leave her children in a locked car. I would say that those who value life so much that they rail against a woman’s right to choose ought to consider the consequences of choices, especially when they aren’t supported. Why don’t we have a work/family policy that makes child care accessible and affordable? Given these provisions, or a living wage, Brittney Downing may not have found the need to bring her children to work with her, and to keep them in the car.
Some employers provide on-site childcare, allowing employees with the same challenges that Brittney Downing faced to drop their children off and come back for them at the end of their shifts. While many provide this childcare at a small fee, others are willing to subsidize low-wage workers. These employers are more the exception than the rule. Do they understand their productivity losses when they do not institute policies that are friendly to women who have children?
There have been spates of cases where mothers have left their children “home alone”. Not all of them have been cases like Brittney’s, when a woman leaves her children because she has no childcare support system. Some of the cases happen to be women who have walked out to buy a soda or get a stamp. That’s likely to be a woman, cooped up with her children, with not enough support to take a break. Other women have left their children “home alone” while they engaged in social activities. While their actions are foolish, the lack of a support system is still quite evident.
There are no excuses for putting a child in danger, or are there? When a woman must work and has no child care, what is she to do? When the research on post-partum depression suggests irrational behavior on the part of some mothers, why are they vilified? How many women have written the post-partum story, while nannies and maids had their backs? How many, without nannies or maids, are challenged to make it on their own?
The low wages that many single mothers earn limit opportunities. The children they try to raise are the collateral damage that our Congress is complicit in when they refuse to raise the minimum wage.
Julianne Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and writer and president emerita of Bennett College for Women.
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