Why Raising the Minimum Wage Is a Major Women’s Rights Issue

A group of protesters holding a large poster 'It's Time to Super-Size the Economy'

Almost undiscussed at the beginning of last year, the minimum wage has skyrocketed to the forefront of the national debate. And with it has come a flood of half-truths.

Conventional wisdom would have you believe minimum wage earners are teenagers living with their parents, working part time for spending money. It isn't the case.

Data shows most Americans making minimum wage are women. In reality, not only are more than half of all minimum wage workers women, they're adult women with children who earn half of their family's income. For this reason, not only is raising the minimum wage to $10.10 a labor rights issue, but a major women's issue as well.

Image credit: Economic Policy Institute

Women, especially women of color, are disproportionately impacted by the minimum wage.

Women are more likely to hold low-wage jobs than men. In 2012, 64% of minimum wage workers were women compared to 36% of men. This means about 2.4 million women earn the minimum wage or less, while approximately 1.2 million men do. This imbalance is even more striking once you consider that women are just 46.8% of all employed workers in the United States.  

Image credit: Center for American Progress

Female workers earning the minimum wage are also disproportionately workers of color. Today, nearly 40% of minimum wage workers are women of color compared to just one-third of working women overall.

Image credit: Center for American Progress

One cannot survive on earning the minimum wage alone.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, but it costs $10.20 per hour to survive in the cheapest county in the country. As a result, many minimum wage employees turn to government assistance for basic needs such as food, electricity and health care, with taxpayers picking up the tab; 52% of workers in the fast-food industry alone rely on $7 billion in subsidies. This happens despite the fact that 66% of minimum wage earners are employed by large businesses with over 100 employees, most of which are in strong financial positions.

In an interview with Forbes, McDonald's worker Carmen Iverson, 28, outlines the hardships she faces supporting a family on her minimum-wage budget. In short, she says:

"I dropped out of school when I was in ninth grade because I was pregnant — the school I was going to didn't let me bring my daughter back. So I dropped out of school because of that. I had my daughter at age 17 ... Basically, all my life, I had to live with people and in shelters. And so I finally got my own place. But if I lose [my] house and can't pay my rent because I work at McDonald's, I'll be back at square one, and I won't let my kids go through that again."

Controversial sample budget McDonald's recommended for its workers.

Women occupy the lowest paying jobs under minimum wage law.

Women also disproportionately earn the subminimum wage for tipped workers like waitresses and bartenders, which are some of lowest paying jobs in the country. In the tipped restaurant industry where 70% of workers are women, current federal law only requires an employer of a tipped employee to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages, leaving customers to subsidize the remaining minimum wage, which does not always happen. Even worse, tipped workers are pretty much powerless when it comes to getting employers to fulfill their legal obligations to make up the difference between tips and minimum wage.

"Serving is a one in a million job and you can easily get fired," Victoria Thompson, 24, a server of five years told PolicyMic. "I've seen it many times; employers find reasons to fire people who cause 'problems,' cut their hours or give them one shift a week. I never talked to my bosses about wages."

Thompson says tips cover her wages about 50% of the time, adding some days she worked five hours only to earn $20. Drastic economic uncertainty is daily life for women in the subminimum wage industries, and is why tipped workers experience a poverty rate nearly three times higher than the rate of the workforce as a whole.

"If minimum wage were higher, I would save the money and buy a car," says Thompson. "I would buy security. Serving is not secure."


Image credit: Alliance for a Just Society

Raising the minimum wage would benefit women and boost our economy.

In 2013, congressional Democrats introduced the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which is currently in committee as of March 2014. The bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015, adjust minimum wage to keep pace with inflation and increase the minimum wage for tipped workers. If the Fair Minimum Wage Act were implemented, women and the economy would win.

Women's National Law Center predicts:

-More than 15 million women would get a raise, including one in five working mothers.

-A mother with two children working full time at the minimum wage would earn enough to pull her family out of poverty, instead of falling $4,000 below the poverty line earning $7.25 per hour.

-Female workers in tipped occupations would have a more adequate and stable base income.

-The average wage gap would shrink, which is particularly important for women of color who earn less than white women per dollar when compared to white, non-Hispanic men.

-Billions of dollars would be added to the economy thanks to new job growth tied to raising minimum wage.

A higher wage floor ultimately means improved job quality in women-centric industries, and a faster, better economic recovery that would benefit us all.

Click here to learn more about the Fair Minimum Wage Act or how to become involved in a local campaign. Image credit: Raise the Minimum Wage.

Minimum wage earners are our mothers, sisters, wives, friends, neighbors and more. Some might feel their jobs are too replaceable for them to earn higher wages (which is not true), but always remember we benefit everyday from their work in ways often taken for granted. Therefore, the least we can do is support women and give them the respect they deserve by standing by the living wage.

Raising the minimum wage alone will not solve all of the inequalities women face in the labor market, but it would definitely be a step in the right direction.