Skip to main content

For women, economic justice a civil rights issue

By Maya L. Harris
January 21, 2014 -- Updated 0619 GMT (1419 HKT)
With adviser Valerie Jarrett looking on, President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act in June.
With adviser Valerie Jarrett looking on, President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act in June.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • On MLK Day, Maya Harris argues that economic justice for women is key today
  • Nearly 42 million women live at or below the poverty line, Harris says
  • Harris: We are no longer a nation with "Leave It to Beaver" family structure
  • Only one in five families today has a parent who stays at home with the kids, Harris points out

Editor's note: Maya L. Harris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and a contributor to The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink.

(CNN) -- "What good does it do to be able to eat at a lunch counter if you can't buy a hamburger?" Martin Luther King Jr. asked almost 50 years ago.

As we celebrate King's birthday, recall the historic struggle for equality and reflect on the progress we've made, we can't forget that a basic tenet of the movement King represented was one of economic security.

For millions of American women and their families -- especially women of color -- the aspiration of equal rights coupled with full economic opportunity is far from realized.

On MLK Day, helping the unemployed is a moral issue

Maya L. Harris
Maya L. Harris

Today, one in three Americans lives at or below the poverty line, and almost 70% are women and children. That's 42 million women inching along poverty's tightrope. The number of working poor struggling to lift themselves into the middle class is steadily increasing, with the worst poverty rates falling on black and Latina women.

A new report just released, The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, illuminates this economic plight that is seizing millions of American women but is frequently overlooked in our national discussions about poverty and inequality.

Women represent nearly two-thirds of minimum wage workers, concentrated in jobs that tend to be labor-intensive. They go without paid sick days or access to affordable child care. Moreover, women across the spectrum continue to earn less than men no matter the education level, profession or position -- a wage gap that is more like a gulf for women of color who earn 55 to 65 cents on the dollar compared with white men.

To fight poverty, start with women

Garner: 'Playing field for kids not equal'
March on Washington remembered
MLK 'twerk' posters spark outrage

Add to this picture that 40% of our nation's households with children rely on women as a primary or sole source of income, and it becomes easier to understand why it is so hard for many families to get ahead.

What's clear is that the American family has changed. No longer are we a "Leave It to Beaver" nation. Only one in five families today has a parent in the workforce and another who stays at home with the kids. Women are increasingly primary breadwinner and primary caregiver, and the nation has not kept pace with this reality.

Our approach to families, in public policy and in the workplace, is decidedly 20th century. We need to push forward a 21st century policy agenda that acknowledges women are playing these critical dual roles.

The greatest MLK speeches you have never heard

For starters, it's past time we adopt nationwide paid family leave and paid sick day policies -- now standard in most developed countries -- so that women don't have to make the impossible choice between providing needed family care and feeding the family.

We also need to close the gender wage gap, which would cut the poverty rate in half for working women and their families and add nearly a half trillion dollars to the national economy. Raising the minimum wage would provide women who labor in jobs caring for others' families with greater economic resources to care for their own.

Access to quality, affordable child care not only allows mothers to work all year, it also gives them the chance to further their education, which is a key gateway to the middle class.

Legislation has been proposed in Congress on all of these issues, so the time to act is now. As we chart the course for the next generation of change, addressing the economic crisis facing women -- particularly low-income women and women of color -- must be front and center.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maya L. Harris.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT