Thursday, March 29, 2012

Nancy Barrett, "Poverty, Welfare, and Comparable Worth"

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly edited a 1984 book entitled Equal Pay for UNequal Work: A Conference on Comparable Worth. I do not plan on reading the entire book right now, but I may do that for a future Women's History Month (since what I have read so far has been good, even when I disagree). Yet, I have been blogging about select presentations within it.

What intrigued me as I was looking through the book last night was that Schlafly included three presentations that defended comparable worth----a policy that mandates some form of pay equity between men and women. Most of the presentations in the book are by conservatives who are critical of the policy----who argue that there are legitimate reasons for pay inequity that have nothing to do with discrimination, that comparable worth results in equal pay for unequal work (since women have different jobs from men), or that comparable worth would impose a costly burden on businesses. But three speakers went to Phyllis Schlafly's conference and actually defended comparable worth in the presence of an audience of conservatives. The pro-comparable worth presentation that I read was by Nancy Barrett, an economist at American University who received her Ph.D. in economics at Harvard and has worked for the U.S. Department of Labor and the Urban Institute.

Barrett interacts with presentations that appear later in the book, for the book is organized topically rather than according to the order of the presentations as they occurred at the conference. I read and blogged about some of the presentations that she discusses, such as the ones by George Gilder and Michael Levin. I especially appreciated that Barrett was trying to find common ground with conservatives, as she acknowledged that the conservative presenters raised valid concerns about comparable worth. She did this in two ways.

First of all, Barrett acknowledged that George Gilder had valid concerns about welfare, and she affirmed that getting people off of welfare was important. But she did not think that cutting benefits really solved anything. After all, the government under Reagan cut benefits and more people then went on welfare, with the result that more money was being spent on it. Barrett argues that comparable worth----paying women more----can help single mothers to support their families and thus keep them off welfare. She contends that a reason that men are paid more than women (as at hospitals, where men tree-trimmers are paid more than women nurses) is that men are seen as household providers. But Barrett contends that employers should remember that women, too, are providing for their families. Barrett also expresses openness to a guaranteed national income (a negative income tax), which was proposed, not by some wild-eyed liberal, but by conservative economist Milton Friedman.

Second, Barrett acknowledges the concern that comparable worth could burden businesses, and she agrees that it would be wrong to make businesses swallow the cost. One solution she has is to make the women's jobs more productive, or to give women more productive jobs. Barrett maintains that, with the right equipment and technology, women can be just as productive as men. Barrett notes that union firms are higher in productivity than non-union firms because firms with unions "are forced to economize on labor and they do it by getting more capital equipment and organizing work more efficiently" (page 31). That, even though unions get high pay for the workers. For Barrett, more production will take care of whatever cost comparable worth imposes. Another solution Barrett has is that "firms that do raise pay for 'disadvantaged occupations' get special tax incentives or tax credits for capital equipment that will raise the productivity of these workers" (page 32).

It would be nice if Barrett's presentation had some influence on the conservatives at the conference. When I read Judith Finn of Eagle Forum's overview of the conference, however, I was not overly optimistic, for Finn refers to Barrett to show that advocates for comparable worth vacillate between saying that women should be paid the same as men because they make as much of a contribution to the business and saying that women should be paid the same due to social justice, since women raise families. While Finn acknowledges that there was a time when men were given job preference because they were the providers, she does not appear to absorb Barrett's points, but rather appeals to them to highlight inconsistencies in the arguments of comparable worth supporters.

I liked Barrett's presentation, though.

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