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Employing Civil Legal Aid in Closing the Wage Gap

By Lonnie Powers

Here’s an economic statistic that holds true in almost every part of the world: women are significantly more likely to be poor than men. In the United States, 16 percent of women live below the federal poverty line, compared with 12 percent of men.

Why is this? When we think about gender inequality in the workplace, it’s often in the context of the “wage gap,” the well-documented phenomenon of women making less than their male colleagues for the same amount of work. Though more American women are finishing college these days than men, a woman with a bachelor’s degree can still expect to take home a lower salary than a man with the same degree. Averaging incomes across the nation, women make about 78.3 cents for every dollar earned by men. President Obama, who signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law at the very beginning of his first term, has often called for measures to close the wage gap; however, income averages have moved very little over the past seven years, even at the White House.

But comprehensive data from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that closing the wage gap will not, of itself, solve the problem of female poverty. The likelihood of a woman being poor is closely tied to racial and socioeconomic factors that also affect men of the same background. The special economic pressures and social expectations that women live under, however, make them uniquely vulnerable to sliding deeper into poverty over time. Out of all the household types in the U.S., single mothers with children are the most impoverished by a large margin, bringing in lower incomes than single fathers with children, or childless single individuals of either gender. Women with limited support networks, who are attempting to allocate limited time and limited funds among the demands of employment, childcare, and household and medical needs, are often one misfortune from economic disaster.

So it’s not at all surprising that civil legal aid organizations, which assist low-income individuals and families who are facing non-criminal legal issues like eviction, unfair employment practices, and barriers to critical social safety nets, report that a whopping 70 percent of their clients are women.

Typical among these women is Carmelita, a healthcare worker and single mother from Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. After Carmelita’s 7-year-old daughter was diagnosed with mental and psychological disorders, Carmelita asked that her full-time hours be reduced so that she could spend more time caring for her daughter–a job that too often fell to Carmelita’s 17-year-old son, at the expense of his educational needs. With no part-time work available at the health center where she was employed, Carmelita was forced to choose between her job and her daughter’s health and well-being. She resigned her position to seek a part-time job.

Carmelita believed she’d be eligible for unemployment benefits while she sought part-time work because she had left for a good reason. However, under a Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance regulation, anyone looking for part-time work after a recent history of full-time employment was automatically denied benefits. Carmelita was told she could appeal, but her chances of prevailing seemed slim―until she contacted Greater Boston Legal Services. A legal aid attorney represented Carmelita at the appeal, and successfully argued that the unemployment regulation had exceptions for people with disabilities and it should be the same for the caretaker of a child with disabilities. The case set a precedent for other working parents to receive the same protection. Civil legal aid spared Carmelita and her family from financial ruin. More important, her daughter’s condition improved significantly.

Poverty has more than one cause. Naturally, fighting poverty requires more than one simple solution. In addition to closing the gender wage gap, the enactment of employment reforms that would give the most vulnerable women–low-income mothers who are the primary caregivers of their children–true stability is critical to fighting poverty among women. Onsite childcare options, or pay increases sufficient to cover the cost of childcare, would allow women to securely hold down a job instead of relying on ad hoc childcare arrangements, or being forced into poorly compensated part-time work. Paid maternity leave, a mandatory employment policy in every other developed country, would also give women the ability to care for newborn infants without risking their financial livelihoods. In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh recently instituted a paid parental leave policy for all City of Boston employees, while Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Healey has done the same for her employees. Other employers should follow their lead and look for creative ways to address pervasive economic injustices.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.