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California’s success depends on lifting up poor women

Gov. Jerry Brown applauds female factory workers from World War II as he visits the Rosie the Riveter National Monument in Richmond to sign an equal-pay law on Oct. 6.
Gov. Jerry Brown applauds female factory workers from World War II as he visits the Rosie the Riveter National Monument in Richmond to sign an equal-pay law on Oct. 6. Bay Area News Group

When women thrive, our communities and our state thrive. Yet, across California, far too many women live paycheck to paycheck, never knowing whether one financial setback – a trip to the emergency room, an unexpected car repair – will push their families to the brink of poverty.

California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, and about 3.4 million women and girls live in poverty. That’s almost the entire female population of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont combined.

We cannot afford to tolerate such incredible disparity. That’s why the Women’s Foundation of California joined women’s groups from across the country at the White House on Nov. 13 to announce a five-year, $100 million commitment to improve the economic well-being of low-income women and their families. The partnership, called Prosperity Together, is dedicated to investing in grass-roots organizations that are developing innovative solutions.

As part of this partnership, the Women’s Foundation of California is pledging $10 million over the next five years to make real our vision of a state in which women not only survive but thrive. That means every woman has a safe and stable place to live, can put healthy food on the dinner table, has access to affordable child care, has a job that allows her to provide for her family and has health insurance and paid sick leave so that she doesn’t have to choose between keeping her job and the well-being of her children.

While this investment is momentous, we know we cannot achieve our vision alone. California must step up, too. Here are three steps we can take now:

▪ Eliminate wage gaps and raise the minimum wage. Women account for half the workforce and six out of 10 minimum-wage workers. Full-time minimum-wage workers earn just $1,440 a month – barely enough to pay rent, let alone additional costs such as child care or food. In 2014, California women made 84 percent of the wages of their male peers. The gap is significantly larger for women of color; black women earn 64 cents for every dollar white men make, while Latinas make 44 cents.

▪ Ensure workplace rights and protections. In 2013, the groundbreaking California Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights gave women who take care of our loved ones the right to overtime pay. Ninety-five percent of domestic workers are women. As a result of that law, 100,000 women now earn overtime pay in California. This bill expires Jan. 1, 2017; it must be renewed.

▪ Advocate for affordable, quality child care. Day care is a necessity for working parents, but the average cost for an infant was nearly $12,100 last year, more than tuition at a public college. We have a distressing shortage of affordable child care slots, which means that children are not learning and parents are not working. We must increase our investment in subsidized child care.

All of us – public officials, the private sector and nonprofits – have a role to play. By boosting economic well-being and equal opportunity for low-income women, we can guarantee economic prosperity for all.

Surina Khan is CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, an advocacy group based in Oakland. She can be contacted at surinak@womensfoundca.org.

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