Tuesday, 9 of February of 2016

Women’s Role in the Economy


By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla with Elizabeth Lower-Basch of Center for Law and Social Policy, Kevin Miller of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Mev Miller of WE LEARN, Gloria Mwase of Jobs for the Future, Margaret Patterson of GED Testing Service, and Heide Spruck Wrigley of Literacywork, International

What is the role of literacy and education on women’s economic contribution?

December 2010 was a banner month for advocates and scholars interested in this question.

The National Coalition for Literacy (NCL) and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) hosted a Policy Forum on the role of literacy for women’s educational and economic opportunities. Just two weeks later, the Joint Economic Committee, spearheaded by Chair Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), released a report summarizing a year’s worth of Congressional testimony and inquiry into the policy challenges facing women. Invest in Women, Invest in America: A Comprehensive Review of Women in the U.S. Economy. This report presents a far-ranging review of policies and cultural assumptions that are keeping women from reaching their true potential and offers data-based solutions for the 21st century.

Unfortunately, the challenges women with low literacy face did not figure prominently in any of the testimony or the JEC report. This article summarizes the report’s findings and adds data on the economics of literacy for women to further inform the conversation. Gender equity really does begin with literacy.


National Coalition for Literacy’s Response to the Joint Economic Committee

Thank you to panelists from the December 1 Policy Forum for contributing to this response: Elizabeth Lower-Basch of Center for Law and Social Policy, Kevin Miller of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Gloria Mwase of Jobs for the Future, Margaret Patterson of GED Testing Service, and Heide Spruck Wrigley of Literacyworks, International.

The JEC reported: Women’s earnings are critical for families’ economic well-being. Between 1983 and 2008, families with wives in the paid labor force saw their income grow by 1.1 percent annually, on average, compared to a 0.2 percent annual decline in income for families where the wife did not work. In 2009, women were the sole job-holders in one in three families with children (34.2 percent). In other words, 7.4 million mothers were their families’ sole source of earnings. Meanwhile, 5.7 percent of families with children under the age of 18 had an unemployed husband and an employed wife. This means that, in 2009, there were 1 million working wives with children at home, but an unemployed husband. For these families, women’s earnings are a critical lifeline.

NCL adds: Women without college degrees constitute a particularly hard hit group who struggle to improve their educational opportunities, their employment, and earnings for their families. It is clear that unemployment comes first and lasts longest for workers with the least educational attainment. In December 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that over 15% of the population of adults without a high school diploma experienced unemployment; this rate declines significantly with educational attainment (10% for high school graduates; 8.7% for those with some college; and 5% for those with a college degree). Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Women represent 52% of the adult learners in federally-funded adult education and training programs (National Reporting System), but only 43% of GED test takers and 41% of GED passers. Moreover, women who have attained their GED credential go on to postsecondary education at a rate of only 42% and only a dismal 11.8% complete a degree, according to analysis from the GED Testing Service. Source: American Council on Education [ACE]. (2010). 2009 GED Testing Program Statistical Report. Washington, DC, GED testing Service. This reference is in Appendix C.

The JEC reported: Women have pulled ahead of men in educational attainment. While the fraction of men with four-year college degrees has stagnated, the share of women with four-year college degrees has grown exponentially. Today, women receive almost 60 percent of the bachelor’s degrees granted in the United States, compared to just 40 percent in 1970.

NCL adds: Unfortunately, too many women are left out of this phenomenon, having quit school before reaching college. Girls continue to drop out of high school at a rate of 7.7% overall nationally, but up to 8.8% of Black girls and 18% of Hispanic girls. Source: High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 2007 (NCES 2009-064).

Socioeconomics plays a large role in young adults’ success and persistence in college. According to analysis by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, “The combination of financial and work constraints coupled with less than full-time attendance often limits working poor adults’ ability to successfully earn a postsecondary credential. Six years after beginning college in 1995–96, nearly half of working poor adult students who began in a degree or certificate program had left without attaining a credential, frequently citing financial concerns and changes in family status as reasons for leaving.” Source: College Access for the Working Poor: Overcoming Burdens to Succeed in Higher Ed.


What’s Holding Women Back?

The JEC reported: Women’s prospective economic power is substantial—as both consumers and producers, women hold the keys to revving up the economy’s engine and driving the nation towards a future of prosperity. Yet women face serious constraints to achieving their full potential. A persistent wage gap not only cheats women and their families out of the earnings they deserve, but artificially constrains the purchasing power of women, and therefore hampers the American economy as a whole.

NCL adds: Minimum wage and part-time jobs are inadequate. Advocates for policies that improve life for low income workers need to work toward a fair, livable wage and opportunities for workers to increase their knowledge and skills to move into family-sustaining jobs.

The JEC reported: A patchwork social support system—particularly in the work-family arena, where the United States offers virtually no institutionalized support for working families—means that America’s economy suffers as women struggle to balance demands from work and demands from home.

NCL adds: The nationwide rise in food stamp applicants, food bank demand, and family homelessness as a result of the Great Recession point to the crisis in the patchwork social support system. To navigate what system there is, one needs literacy and English. A 2003 study by the Urban Institute describes the complexity of the application process for cash assistance, food stamps, child health care and Medicaid.

The JEC reported: A retirement system that disadvantages women means that too many hard-working women spend their elder years on the precipice of economic disaster. Social Security plays a uniquely important role for women because it provides a guaranteed source of retirement income. Without it, over half of all women over the age of 65 would be poor.

NCL adds: Half of all elderly women with low literacy are already poor. Poverty and literacy are tightly correlated throughout the lifespan, but the impact is even stronger in the elder years. Source: National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The JEC reported: Women are far more likely than men to be employed part-time — nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of part-time workers are women, and one in four (26 percent) of all employed women work part-time. Over a quarter (26.0 percent) of working mothers are single moms, a group of women who have long been active labor market participants. Over three-quarters (75.8 percent) of single mothers either worked or were actively seeking employment in 2009.

NCL adds: Women with lower levels of literacy work fewer hours and fewer weeks per year, and are more likely to be unemployed or out of the labor force altogether. Source: National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

The JEC reported: The absence of a federal paid sick leave policy also places a special burden on women. Currently, more than one-third (37 percent) of working women in establishments with 15 or more workers lack access to paid sick leave. The absence of paid sick leave means that millions of women are vulnerable to income and job loss when an illness requires that they stay home from work.

NCL adds: Women with lower levels of literacy are more likely to report being unemployed due to disability or illness. Source: National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

Moreover, of children who are eligible to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits due to chronic illness or disability, 42% live with a parent with less than a high school diploma, 35% with only a high school diploma or GED; 59% in single parent families, adding economic and resource challenges to their growth and development, and challenges to the caregivers. Source: Early Transition Experiences of Transition-Age Child SSI Recipients: New Evidence From the National Survey of Children and Families, by Wittenburg, D. C. & Loprest, P. J., Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 18 (3), 2007, pp. 176–187.

The JEC reported: The early care and education system in the United States remains under-developed and underfunded. This failure not only hurts working women, who bear the primary responsibility for caring for children. It also hurts the workers employed in the care sector—child care workers and early educators, who are primarily women and remain under-valued and under-paid.

NCL adds: Women who return to postsecondary education also face the burden of child care. Student parents account for 23% of all postsecondary learners, 16.5% of whom are women and 9% of whom are single mothers. The cost and availability of child care is a large contributing factor in women’s ability to persist in postsecondary or vocational training. Source: Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

The JEC reported: Women’s role as the main caregivers in American society extends across their lifespans. Over 82 percent of all care for the frail elderly is unpaid, and women account for two-thirds of these unpaid caregivers.

NCL adds: The health literacy of American women, our primary caregivers, is of great concern. Yet the first ever assessment of health literacy found a disturbingly large number of Americans struggling with health literacy. Only 11% of men and 12% of women could be considered “proficient” in health literacy, meaning they had the skills necessary to calculate insurance plan benefits, or find accurate information related to a medical term. This assessment also found that health literacy correlates with educational attainment, literacy proficiency, and poverty.


Potential Solutions for a 21st Century Economic Equity

The JEC reported: Investments in women, and in policies that advance women’s economic status, are more than investments in individual and family well-being. They are also investments in the economy as a whole, because women’s potential for contributing to economic growth and prosperity is enormous. A wide variety of policy solutions aimed at fostering economic equity in the 21st century could harness that potential and push America forward into a new era of economic prosperity.

  • Stronger Protections Against Wage Discrimination
  • Health Reform
  • Work-Family Policies
  • Financial Regulatory Reform
  • Value the Care Economy
  • Consider the Impact of Tax and Entitlement Reforms on Women

To this list, NCL adds:

  • Greatly expanded and supported opportunities for women to re-engage with education and vocational training that could boost them and their families into family-supporting jobs, breaking the cycles of poverty, low literacy, low English proficiency, and low educational attainment.

Join us now to make sure adults who struggle with education are not forgotten! Sign up for NCL Updates and Alerts and join our campaign for adult education and literacy.


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