When women succeed, America succeeds too

Those who marched on Washington, D.C., 50 years ago could not have imagined that within a couple of generations, our country would have an African-American president and African-American leaders in the areas of business, academia and public service. 

In many ways, we have made great strides since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. I am a living example of the efforts and dedication of Dr. King and so many other civil rights leaders who marched for jobs and justice on that sweltering August day. They laid the foundation that allowed me to become the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Yet, we still see evidence that Dr. King’s dream is still far from being fulfilled. For the 60 million people living in poverty and many still unable to find a job, progress has been uneven and too often our policy priorities misplaced. 

African-American women have been affected disproportionately by the 2008 economic crisis and the slow progress to increase wages and economic opportunities. I know what it is like to be a single mother, without health insurance, relying on food pantries to help make ends meet while working full-time to get ahead. Each day can be a struggle — to raise and nurture children, to budget monthly expenses and to find affordable access to healthcare and child care. 

Unfortunately, Congress has not focused on the challenges that women across the country face. Even half a century since Dr. King’s speech and since President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, our country’s social and economic policies still treat women as unequal to men. Women today earn only 77 cents for each dollar earned by their male counterparts. For women of color, the discrepancy is even starker, as African-American women and Latinas make 64 and 55 cents to the dollar, respectively. This pay gap has a tremendous, long-term impact on earnings and savings: A woman with a bachelor’s degree or higher loses $11,000 a year and approximately $700,000 over a career, according to the Center for American Progress. 

In addition to closing the pay-equity gap, we must also ensure that women are able to make a living wage. Our federal minimum wage is unacceptably low, at $7.25 an hour, a rate that is now lower in today’s dollars than the minimum wage civil rights leaders spoke out against in 1963. Women who work a minimum-wage job struggle to escape poverty — 5.5 million women and 15.6 percent of African-American women — are classified as working poor. 

I’ve joined my colleague Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) as an original co-sponsor of the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, which would raise the minimum wage to $10.10, This includes my bill, H.R. 650, the WAGES Act, to raise the tipped minimum wage for the first time in 20 years. Importantly, we should peg the minimum wage to inflation so that wages keep pace with the cost of living.

Finally, women should not have to choose between advancing their career and raising a family, especially when that choice is often unavailable to the many women who are the sole wage earner in the family. A recent study by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies showed that childcare is more expensive than average housing costs and tuition at public universities. Childcare in Maryland is on average $12,400 and more than $18,000 in Washington, D.C., annually, which represents nearly 70 percent of median income for a single mother in this capital city. Once you pay for childcare, little is left for anything else. 

We can grow our economy by promoting policies that lift up mothers and allow them to advance their career while caring for their children. It’s not just about women; men lose too when their families earn less and childcare costs more.

This summer, I joined with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and several of my female Democratic colleagues to launch a bold new women’s economic agenda that addresses real economic needs facing women and families. “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” underscores the significant contributions women make to our economy and our families. The focus areas — equal pay, affordable childcare and work/family balance — provide an actionable policy framework that will improve the lives of women and families, while providing a boost to our nation’s economy. 

I look forward to continuing this conversation at the September 2013 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. We must work together to incorporate these forward-thinking policies if we are to address challenges over the next 50 years. I am confident that America can come together and work in the spirit of those inspirational leaders who marched on Washington, so every American — regardless of gender or race — can have an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream. 

Edwards has represented Maryland’s 4th Congressional District since 2008. She sits on the Science, Space and Technology and the Transportation and Infrastructure committees.