An American Prospect

Alan Jenkins

Two new government reports illustrate the complex and troubling state of opportunity in America, but also the right way forward.

The first set of data, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that the gender pay gap is at a historic low, with women earning almost 83¢ for every dollar earned by men—compared with 76¢ a decade ago and until fairly recently. The change is due in part to young women’s progress in the workplace—they increasingly are better educated and out-earn their male counterparts—but also to depressed wages and, especially, more rapid job loss by men.

Wage rates, in other words, are largely leveling down instead of leveling up. Figures for African Americans were especially striking: median weekly wages rose 8% over a one-year period for black women and fell by 2.4% for black men.

The second set of data came from the Census Bureau, which reported that the number of working-age Americans living in poverty was the highest since the 1960s, and that one in seven Americans were poor. The poverty rate for Latinos (25.3%) and African Americans (25.8%) is more than double that of whites (9.4%), meaning, among other things, that one in four people of color are struggling to provide for their families.

The poverty figures were for 2009, President Obama’s first year in office. So they are less a referendum on his presidency than they are a clear problem statement for the administration and Congress (whatever its partisan composition) going forward. Together, the new information calls for initiatives and investment in both greater and more equal opportunity for all Americans.

That means, for example, a focus on retraining and education for well-paying jobs in the new economy, and better aligning existing green jobs training to actual, long-term job opportunities. But it also means ensuring that private-sector jobs and public-sector initiatives reach all Americans and their communities, irrespective of race, gender, or ethnicity.

One of President Obama’s first acts was to sign the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and his Justice Department has stepped up its fair employment enforcement considerably. But more is needed.

The Opportunity Agenda has proposed the use of Opportunity Impact Statements to ensure that public investments in employment and infrastructure in fact create quality job opportunities, and do so equitably. And Congress should move forward with legislation to ensure paid sick leave for all workers—a step that will help close the gender wage gap, since women are more likely to lose work days, and pay, as caregivers to sick children, elderly parents and others.

These protections should be elements of a renewed focus on job creation, such as through the Local Jobs for America Act proposed by Rep. George Miller of California. Also welcome is the commonsense proposal for immigration reform to be introduced by New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez—fixing our broken immigration system will raise both wages and tax revenues now and for years to come.

As the latest economic figures show, steps to ensure both greater and more equal opportunity benefit all Americans, and our nation as a whole. Now is the time to make them a reality.

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