New York City is suffering from a record homelessness crisis, which has disproportionately affected women and their children. At Win, the city’s largest provider of family shelter, over 90% of our families are headed by women.
Homelessness is complicated. But a primary reason why families enter a shelter is money: The hourly wages these mothers earn at their jobs simply can’t cover the ever-rising cost of rent in New York. They’re paid less for the same work as men. In 2019 live-in home health aides continue to be paid 13 hours of wages for 24 hours of work. Housekeeping cleaners make 86 cents on the dollar for men doing the same job. The gender pay gap persists across nearly every industry. To address the homelessness crisis and alleviate poverty in New York, we must confront the pay gap head on and stop undervaluing women.
More than half of the homeless mothers at Win are working now, while raising families and trying to transition out of shelter. Like all New Yorkers, they navigate subway and bus commutes to jobs ranging from retail and food service, home health care, customer service and cleaning. While these women are working, Win provides childcare. But under the city contracts that fund these daycare centers, an assistant teacher makes just $27,000 per year, which in some cases is less than the annual incomes of the families they serve.
Win’s focus is to equip families with the tools they need to permanently leave the shelter system. We offer our Income Building Program, which helps homeless women secure stable jobs and build a steady income through employment counseling and classes in financial education, interview preparedness, resume writing, computer literacy and budgeting. Last year, the program helped over 3,000 women achieve employment gains—getting a job, moving to a full-time position, earning a raise. But programs like Win’s can only go so far if women enter a workforce that systematically disenfranchises against them based on gender.
We’ve made some progress on closing the wage gap, but especially for women of color, that war is far from won. That’s why it’s time for a new, broader vision of pay equity. Pay equity is more than just two people of different genders getting paid the same wage for the exact same job. It must also be about the value of women’s work and the value of caregiving. Income inequality is about the gap between the wealthy and those who struggle to get by, but it’s also about a firefighter who out-earns the paramedic who works alongside him day after day, or the health aide who earns less than the janitor sweeping the floors alongside her. If we turn a blind eye to racial and gender equity in these discussions, we’ll miss the opportunity to advance truly progressive and equitable economic policies for the future.
We need better data on the labor market so we can weigh policy choices wisely. It’s time to take an intersectional approach that considers gender, race and ethnicity when economic decisions are being made and to start with the lowest paid workers. Let’s enact the big, bold changes that will give homeless moms the fair shot they need to thrive in New York City.
Christine Quinn, City Council’s former speaker, is president and CEO of Win, the largest provider of shelter and services to women and families in New York City. Jessica Katz is executive director of the Citizens Housing & Planning Council