Wealth gap challenges women’s economic security while incomes don’t keep pace, says Wider Opportunities for Women

With all the media buzz about the “mancession,” one might be forgiven for thinking that women emerged from the recession unscathed. It’s true that men are overrepresented in industries that were hit hardest by the recession, like construction and manufacturing, but that isn’t the whole story when it comes to measuring economic security. Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) hosted a conference last week for its network of national partners, including Woodstock Institute, to explore persistent challenges to women’s economic security, from childhood to retirement.

A recurring theme throughout the conference was the gap in the amount of assets—such as savings for emergencies or retirement, home equity, and investments—that women own versus the amount of assets that men own. This disparity is called the “wealth gap.” Assets matter because they mark the difference between getting by and getting ahead; they are the financial building blocks that allow individuals to weather a crisis, improve their financial situation, and pass on wealth to the next generation. In an era of high unemployment and a frayed social safety net that’s under attack, assets are more important than ever to keeping families stable and economically secure.

Dr. Mariko Chang, author of “Shortchanged: Why women have less wealth and what can be done about it”, reported that her research found that women who have never been married and work full time have made the greatest gains closing the income gap between men and women, but they still have a substantial wealth gap. Men in that demographic have an average of $20,000 of assets, while women who have never been married and work full time own about $1,500 of assets—only 8 percent of men’s wealth. The wealth gap is stark across races as well. Chang also found that 46 percent of households headed by single African-American females have no assets at all, compared to 23 percent of households headed by single white females. The Illinois Asset Building Group estimates that 51 percent of African-Americans and 48 percent of Latinos in Illinois live in asset poverty, meaning they are unable to get by at the federal poverty level for three months if income is disrupted. In contrast, 19 percent of white Illinoisans live in asset poverty.

What explains the women’s wealth gap? Dr. Chang points out that women are more likely to be in industries that do not provide wealth-building fringe benefits, like retirement plans and health insurance. Women are also more likely to be single parents than are men. The income is still an important factor, as well. Political analyst Celinda Lake reminded conference attendees that women still make 78 cents for every dollar that men make, meaning they have fewer resources to put towards building wealth. Lake also called into question the “mancession” meme. She pointed out that, since the recession officially ended in the summer of 2009, the unemployment rate for women has been rising faster than the unemployment rate for men. States have seen mass layoffs of public employees as they lose federal assistance from the stimulus, face greater demands on safety net services, and tax revenues fall. ABC News reports that 80 percent of public sector jobs lost between July 2009 and February 2011 were held by women.

With an eye towards including assets in the national conversation about poverty and what families need to achieve economic security, WOW released new standards for measuring how much income workers and their families need to meet basic expenses and save for emergencies, retirement, and secondary education. The results are sobering. WOW found that a single worker would need to make $30,012 a year—or just above $14 an hour—to be economically secure. That’s almost three times as high as the federal poverty line. Similarly, a single worker with two young children would need $57,756, or just over $27 an hour, to meet expenses and save for the future. This chart in the New York Times shows how WOW’s standards compare to the federal poverty standards. WOW’s income standards do not account for any frills like cell phones, cable TV, gifts, vacations, or eating out; when calculating college costs, WOW assumes that students will take the most cost-effective route of living at home and going to a two-year community college, then finishing their four-year degree at a state university.

While WOW’s standards are national benchmarks and costs may vary greatly from major cities to rural areas and from state to state, it’s clear that there is much work to be done to ensure that families are equipped to achieve economic security. Woodstock will continue to document and advocate for solutions to challenges that make it harder for workers to build wealth, like low credit scores concentrated in communities of color that put up barriers to accessing affordable credit for a home, small business, or higher education.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user pinprick through a Creative Commons license.