What candidates miss on women's wage slowdown

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Story highlights

  • Heather Boushey: 2016 campaign has brought finger-pointing on wage slowdown, particularly women's. But wage stagnation not new
  • She says wage issue needs larger lens to address unforgiving work schedules that are eroding health, productivity, families

Heather Boushey is executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She is the author of the forthcoming book, "Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict."

(CNN)As the primary season heats up, there has been fierce debate around what some pundits call the "great wage slowdown of the 21st century." Today's workers — men and women alike — are laboring longer and are better educated than ever. Yet their paychecks have stayed the same or even declined.

Heather Boushey
While women have made much progress in getting paid for their work over the past 30 years, their wages have stagnated and still sit far behind men. This means that families are suffering: Men were particularly hard hit by the Great Recession, and women's stagnant earnings are now the mainstay of family incomes.
    Candidates on both sides of the aisle blame the policies of the other side with sound-bite attacks. This kind of finger-pointing may be good political theater, but few of the candidates have the courage to admit the intimidating reality: Wage stagnation is a problem that goes back decades. Addressing it means addressing deep and longstanding structural changes in the economy.
    That means policymakers must acknowledge the role of women in the workplace, and what that means for family incomes, shared time with their families, and future economic growth and competitiveness. No easy feat.
    Wage stagnation and decline reaches back to the 1970s. From the 1950s to 1970s, family income and productivity grew together. But beginning in the 1970s — just as the civil rights laws were finally opening opportunities for women and people of color — the middle-class standard of living was beginning to slip. Between 1979 and 2007, the peak of the financial crisis, the economy churned out almost double the amount of goods and services: five times the pace of growth of family incomes.
    In other words, American workers were producing more and more, but did not see their incomes rise at the same pace.
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    How did families survive? It was women who increasingly kept their households afloat. The fast rate of women entering the labor force — and the wages they earned — offset men's declining wages and participation rate. In fact, even with two earners the meager income growth that did occur over this period was overwhelmingly due to women's wages and earnings.
    By 2000, the United States had one of the highest rates of working women of any developed country. Three years later, wages peaked for women with college degrees or less, a group that comprises about 90% of working women. But as the United States failed to implement sensible work-life policies, women began to fall behind -- far behind. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that as of 2013 (the latest data available), the United States ranks 19th out of 22 countries in terms of female labor participation rates.
    From the turn of the century on, women's wages had also slowed precipitously, even before the Great Recession. And between 2000 and 2007 the amount men took home actually declined. The recession worsened the situation exponentially so that by 2013, the bottom 90% of American households had lower average incomes than they did in 1980.
    Struggling to make ends meet, however, isn't just about families relying on women's incomes to put food on the table. Today's breadwinners, men and women alike, also must sacrifice time with their chidlren (and often aging parents and relatives) because the majority are working longer workweeks than ever just to stay afloat.
    They are working in jobs that can deny them paid sick days or insist on mandatory overtime, some of it unpaid. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 -- which ushered in the eight-hour day, national minimum wage, paid overtime rules and child labor protections -- hasn't kept up with the changing role of women in the workplace and we are now paying the price.
    So while many Americans stay in a bad job to pay their rent and put food on the dinner table, they do so at the expense of their own health, their productivity at work, and even their children's well-being, which has an enormously detrimental effect on the economy.
    Policies such as paid family leave and sick time, overtime protection, affordable child care, and predictable schedules that work for families could go a long way to alleviating this harmful time crunch.
    It is good to see the persistent wage stagnation enter into the mainstream debate, but actually addressing it requires a wider lens that goes far beyond a single statistic or political debate. We must confront not only the slowdown in wages for women, but also the sacrifices required by the speedup in working hours. Doing so could help families, and the overall economy.