The typical woman who works full time earns 79 cents for every dollar earned by a typical man. We hear this income statistic a lot. It’s disheartening, more so when you learn that the disparity is even worse along racial lines. Black women earn 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men; Hispanic women, 54 cents.
It’s good that we are talking about the gender income gap between men and women, but we are not talking enough about the equally important gender wealth gap. Panelist Elena Chávez Quezada, who founded the Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap Initiative, told us that women control 33 percent of the wealth that men do. This holds true even for women who work full time and have never married, despite the fact that those women have almost closed the gap with men who’ve never married (97 cents for every dollar). Far more disturbing: single black and Hispanic women own less than a penny for every dollar owned by white men. Older women are twice as likely to live in poverty as older men.
Meanwhile, 50 percent of college students are women; 50 percent of business owners in this country are women; 72 percent of high school valedictorians are women. Why isn’t progress on income equality leading to progress of wealth equality?
It is common knowledge that women did not have the same access to capital as men throughout U.S. history, but some of the egregious inequalities in recent history forced double and triple takes during our panel. Until 1974, women couldn’t access credit in their own name. And it wasn’t until 1988 that women were able to take out a business loan without a male relative co-sign. 1988! Of course, the painful history of racial injustice in the U.S., from slavery to Jim Crow laws to redlining, has systematically blocked both men and women of color from building wealth.
To address the gender wealth gap, the panelists say that parity starts with finding solutions to the big, tangible barriers that women in our country currently face. For example, low-income women in subsidized housing are required to pay 30 percent of their income toward their housing. This may sound reasonable, but it creates a strong adverse incentive: The more they make, the more they pay. These types of scenarios create impossible choices for low-income women—working a second job might provide a bit more income, but is less likely to enable any sort of wealth-building. Sherry Riva and her team at Compass Working Capital are addressing situations like this; within its family self-sufficiency program, Compass provides support services built around a HUD program that allows families to capture in a savings account any increase in rent triggered by an increase in income. Compass helps low-income women and families out of poverty and creates an orientation toward the future.
Other solutions are often more obvious, such as programs that offer financial coaching on budgeting, saving for a down payment on a house, saving for retirement and other aspects of financial planning. Employers can help with purposeful attention to benefit programs, such as clear retirement choices with automatic investment options, and more generous maternity and paternity leave. And government can also play a role in subtle ways—for example, policies that limit predatory student lending practices would disproportionately benefit women, who are more likely to have predatory student debt that persists even through a bankruptcy.
Access to financial education and resources affects women at all levels of wealth—the gap exists for relatively well-off women just as it does for poorer women. The fact that women haven’t had the same access to capital, business networks and mentors as their male counterparts has resulted in women-owned businesses staying small rather than scaling up to larger enterprises with the frequency that businesses owned by men have. Providing women with access to these resources, especially at critical moments, can be a huge step toward closing the gender wealth gap.
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