When I was living on Social Security, I wasn’t taxed for any of my Social Security benefits. Even when I started working part-time, my Social Security income remained untaxed. But when my husband added his new job to the mix, not only did it drive us into a higher tax bracket, but almost half of my Social Security became taxable. I ended up having to pay more taxes even though my income didn’t increase.
This “secondary earner penalty” removes any advantage that being married is supposed to bring. In a way, you could call the secondary earner’s income as “phantom” income: by the time you figure in the penalty, plus pay for child care and other expenses which come from working (like a second car), the secondary earner–which is usually the woman–might as well have remain unemployed.
This unfairness rests heavily on women because they generally have the lower income, whether it’s because they work part-time or full-time at lower-paying jobs. But even if they make a decent wage, they will still see a big chunk taken out of their income by working expenses. They might as well stay home with the kids.
But many women take jobs anyway to shore things up while husbands seek better jobs (or jobs, period). They may come out ahead (and often it’s not that much ahead), but it comes at a great cost: today’s working women are under a tremendous amount of stress trying to juggle jobs with the needs of their families and households. The house goes uncleaned, the errands undone, children unwatched. All for a job that has little compensation.
So why do women work, if the picture is that dreary? I spoke to two young mothers recently who have at different times in their lives stayed home with the kids. Even at the time, they both longed for something to take them out of the home at least part of the time. One is a doctor and the other a dentist and both are married to doctors. They don’t have to work. But they want to. They love their children but they also love having something of their own to challenge them beyond child-care and housekeeping.
This is the problem that had no name that Betty Friedan referred to in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique. Even though the book came out in 1963 and helped to set off the second wave of the feminist movement, women still grapple with the same issue today. More women are working outside of the home now, but they’re still finding it difficult to find personal fulfillment.
And it doesn’t help that their incomes, when they do work, count for so little. What can make their situation better? First of all, employers need to be encouraged to be more flexible about their female employees who have children. Just because they’re mothers doesn’t mean that they should lose out on promotions and higher pay. Secondly, there has to be affordable quality child care or the woman ends up with little or no financial advantage to working. Thirdly, part-time workers shouldn’t be penalized in terms of benefits and pay just because they work less hours per week. Many of them would work full-time if their employers would let them. (It’s a common practice to limit the number of hours a worker gets per week so that she won’t qualify for benefits.) And lastly, a woman’s income ought to be considered on its own, so that she is not taxed for income she didn’t even earn.
Women need to join together in a union of their own to represent their unique interests. Instead we have groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW), MomsRising, and the Feminist Majority Foundation, to name a few. But none of these organizations focus exclusively on economic and workplace issues. It has historically been unions who represent workers. Why not a women’s union to represent female workers? Surely there are issues that all women can agree on. The divisive issues like abortion, birth control and gay marriage are social more than economic and don’t have to be addressed by a union.
Food for thought?