Making the Promise of America Its Practice

By Alexis M. Herman

Vol. 22, No. 1, 2000, p. 16

The good news comes from everywhere, virtually every day. America is on a roll. More than twenty million new jobs have been created since President Clinton and Vice President Gore took office in 1993. Wages are up, and at 4.1 percent, the nation's unemployment rate is way down-especially among women.

When the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, the Southern Regional Council's predecessor, was created in 1919, approximately one in five women worked. Today, women are nearly half the American workforce. Not only has the number of working women more than doubled, but the jobs have also changed. In the past twenty-five years, the percentage of female attorneys has jumped from 7 to 29 percent, while female physicians have increased from 13 to 25 percent. One in three businesses is owned by a woman. In today's information age, women are web developers and online financial advisors, jobs never imagined by our foremothers.

But the bright light of our country's prosperity isn't shining on all American workers. And even though more American women are participating in the workforce than ever before, there is still a substantial gap in the wages paid to men and women.

As we enter the twenty-first century, it is simply wrong that women earn about seventy-five cents compared to men. Working women pay the same for goods and services, and should be paid the same for the work they do.

Of course, there are people who claim that pay discrimination is a thing of the past. One study even claimed that we don't have to worry about it anymore because very young women with no children had essentially achieved parity with their male counterparts. That would be fine if women never aged, or never had children. But we aren't living in Pleasantville. We are living in the real world, and we need to take real action.

Thanks to the leadership of organizations like SRC we have made progress, but we need to continue focusing America's attention on closing the pay gap once and for all. The truth is, that women who make less build up less in their employers' pension plans. So, pay inequity adds up to pension inequity. This is money women never get back. And when it comes to retirement savings, instead of compounding interest, we are compounding injustice.

At the Labor Department, we are addressing the pay equity issue in three ways. First, we are putting a focus on helping workers-particularly women-get the skills, training and education to get ahead. In today's economy, how you grow depends on what you know, and we are calling on the resources of government, business, community and faith-based leadership to help more women get on the road to success.

We are also supporting women who are making the delicate transition from welfare to work. For them, the thin line of trustworthy child care, reliable transportation, housing and training often separates failure from success. And we are creating security nets across the country to ensure these women not only have jobs, but also a real future.

Finally, we are continuing to speak out about the need to raise the minimum wage. More than 10 percent of the 10 million Americans who would benefit directly from the increase are African-American women. Over one year, a dollar an hour increase is enough for a low-income family of four to buy groceries for seven months: or pay rent for five months, or invest in their own training with a year and a half of community college education.

As America's workplace evolves at warp-speed, these are the things we must do to ensure that we leave no one behind-particularly our nation's women. We must continue to work together, to create policies together, and to lift our voices together, until we have truly made the promise of America, the practice of America.

Alexis M. Herman is U.S. Secretary of Labor. She co-founded the Black Women's Employment Project at SRC in 1972.