On TV’s “To The Contrary”: Talking Immigration, Breadwinning Women, Surrogacy and the Single Dad

Terrance Heath

Today I had the honor of being one of few men to join the panel on WETA’s “To The Contrary,” with Bonnie Erbe, for a Father’s Day edition of the normally all-female news analysis program. (The show will air later this evening, and the video will be available online here.) I was on board for a segment about “Surrogacy and the Single Dad,” but the discussion encompassed issues that cut across gender, race, class, and orientation.

The discussion on immigration brought to mind Bill’s post on how immigration reform brings us one step closer to ending the underground economy, which includes workers in what Pramila Jayapal calls “informal or paperless industries.”

First, the path to citizenship, while not perfect, does recognize the particular needs of undocumented women. Sixty percent of undocumented women work in paperless or informal industries. The other 40 percent of undocumented women are at home taking care of their children as primary caregivers. For the first time in a reform proposal, the current bill recognizes that women’s work is valuable but often not documented with pay stubs. The bill allows women to provide alternate forms of proof of employment, such as sworn affidavits from church groups or nonprofit organizations. An amendment that would have removed this provision failed in markup, and senators need to ensure the provision in the base bill survives the floor fight.

Workers in an underground economy are workers whose employement is not documented, and thus whose rights and protections are at best undefined and at worst nonexistant.

Valuing work like taking care of children at home brings to mind another issue we discussed, and that I wrote about last week: that women are the family breadwinners in 40 percent of U.S. households. My cynical side is inclined to think that maybe childcare will be valued as “real” work now that more men are doing it. But it turns out that Americans aren’t any more comfortable with stay-at-home dads than they are with working moms, and men who take on a fairer share of childcare get no respect at work.

What gets lost in the debate, as I pointed out last week, that the whole debate of whether women “should” work outside the home is a luxury most families can’t afford.

That last bit about dual-income couples sheds light on the other side of the coin. Many of those working moms are working out of necessity, at low-wage jobs, with little to no benefits, and no paid time off. Coontz writes that “low-wage jobs with urgent and inflexible time demands,” raise levels of stress and depression among working mothers.

As KJ Dell’Antonia pointed out, what’s wrong with this debate is that it conflates the realties of middle-class families with those of low-income families who are part of the working poor, who were hit the hardest in the recession, and have seen no benefits from the so-called recovery.

And while it’s worth celebrating for a moment that more women are able to earn enough to be breadwinners, Meteor Blades has another explanation for why some women are the primary breadwinners in their families: men’s average pay has gotten worse.

Over the past three decades, there has been improvement, a narrowing of the gap. As Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute points out, the median hourly wage for women in 1979 was 62.7 of the median for men. In 2012, it was 82.8 percent:

However, a big chunk of that improvement-more than a quarter of it-happened because of men’s wage losses, rather than women’s wage gains.

With the exception of the period of labor market strength in the late 1990s, the median male wage, after adjusting for inflation, has decreased over essentially the entire period since the late 1970s. Between 1979 and 1996, it dropped 11.5 percent, from $19.53 per hour to $17.27 per hour. With the strong labor market of the late 1990s, the median male wage partially rebounded to $18.93 by 2002. It then began declining again; at $18.03 per hour in 2012, the real wage of the median male was 4.7 percent below where it had been a decade earlier.

This cannot be blamed on economic stagnation. Between 1979 and 2012, productivity – the average amount of goods and services produced in an hour by workers in the U.S. economy – grew by 69.5 percent, but that did not translate into higher wages for most men. Over this period, the real wage of the median male dropped 7.6 percent. This is a new and troubling disconnect: In the decades prior to the 1970s, as productivity increased, the wages of the median worker increased right along with it.

Some women may be the primary breadwinners because they’re single parents, or because their male partners unemployed. But some may be the primary winners in a household where both partners are working, but the income of one “working man” just isn’t what it used to be, and isn’t nearly enough to support a family.

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