Op-ed by Rep. Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, the assistant House majority leader in the Maine Legislature.
When Maine women succeed, their families and communities succeed. And ultimately, Maine succeeds. In the Legislature, we focus every day on building a strong economy where Mainers can prosper. What we need to address in each of these conversations — whether the subject is taxes, welfare reform or workforce training — is how we can best unleash power of women in our economy.
In the second half of the 20th century, this country saw its greatest economic growth because of women’s increased involvement in the economy. Yet today, for too many women, the challenge of making ends meet for themselves is a day to day struggle.
Today, in 2016, eight out of 10 women work ,and four of those 10 women are the sole or primary wage earner in their family. Yet our workplace policies are stuck in an era that assumes Mom stays at home while Dad goes to work. They are based on the incorrect premise that minimum-wage jobs are for inexperienced young workers who haven’t yet started their families and who will soon move on and up the ladder of increasing earnings.
They are based on the memory of an American Dream whose trajectory has drastically changed.
We can continue to mourn that change or we can start investing in in a future to make Maine prosperous again.
In Maine, as with every other state in this country, women are paid less than men. Maine women earn 84 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn, for a median income of $36,000. This has drastic consequences for Maine children and our state as a whole.
Nearly 1 in 4 Maine children under the age of 5 is living in poverty, with almost 60 percent of those kids in a household headed by a single woman. Twenty-four percent of Maine children struggle with hunger. How can we expect our economy to flourish under these circumstances?
We still talk about the “progress we’ve made” as women. But if we leave progress as winning the right to vote in 1929, our pay increasing from 70 cents to 78 cents to 84 cents for every dollar a male earns, or the fact that some women are actually pushing against the glass ceiling, this state will never regain its competitive edge.
Unleashing the power of women is the most important thing that we can do to grow Maine’s economy. The approach is straightforward.
It’s about good-paying jobs that allow full participation in the workforce by women. We need policies that recognize women make up the majority of minimum wage workers.
We need policies that recognize that workers need predictable schedules to provide stability for their families, and that we all have to take care of someone, whether it’s a sick child or an aging parent.
It’s about providing the best possible public education for our children no matter where in this state they live or their family’s income level. Great education has to start early because we know it increases children’s chances of success in school, work and elsewhere in life — and that it provides a great return on investment to taxpayers.
High-quality preschool education for a low-income child, for example, saves taxpayers an average of $125,400 over the child’s lifetime — more than five times the initial investment.
It’s about the basic right to preventative and reproductive health care. A woman’s ability to control when — and whether — to start a family is key to her economic security and opportunity. And it’s about affordable and excellent childcare when and if we do have a family.
And it’s also about understanding what true welfare entails. To move forward, we need an understanding that the goal is about moving people from poverty to sustainable employment. “Reform” can never be simply cutting the safety net out from under Mainers who are hungry or need help keeping a roof over their heads while they get back on their feet.
Because here’s the ugly truth: thousands of Maine families right now face the reality of low wages and disappearing jobs. Their challenges impact entire communities and our shared economy.
A real plan for Maine’s economic future leaves political games aside to focus on the issues help women, their families and communities reach their full potential. Because when women succeed economically, this state succeeds.
It’s time to get to work on this part of the 21st century economy. Maine Democrats are ready.
Rep. Sara Gideon, will likely be a favorite to become House Speaker, if Democrats keep control of the Maine State House.