Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s fact checker, joins other analysts and commentators in finding fault with President Obama’s once again calling attention to the fact that “Today, the average full-time working woman earns just 77 cents for every dollar a man earns…in 2014, that’s an embarrassment. It is wrong.”  The 23-cent gap, Kessler says, doesn’t so much reflect outright Lilly Ledbetter-type sexism or discrimination—paying women less than men for exactly the same work—as it does life and career choices women have made: “The average woman has less work experience than the average man…[M]ore of the weeks worked by women are part-time rather than full-time. Women also tend to leave the work force for periods in order to raise children, seek jobs that may have more flexible hours but lower pay and choose careers that tend to have lower pay.”

How real are these “choices”?  How many women would work part-time or leave the workforce to raise children if good and affordable child-care were readily accessible?  How many would choose lower-paying professions if not for the barriers that still exist to the higher-paid careers?

But there are larger and more important problems with the pay gap, and with the arguments advanced by both pay-equity advocates, like the president, and critics.  The gap is not bad only because of the process that leads to it, i.e. because it may be the result of illegal discrimination. It’s bad because it means that half the workforce, and 40 percent of the country’s heads of households, earns almost 25 percent less and therefore has substantially less to spend on their own and their children’s food, housing, health care and education, and less to save for retirement, deficits that will burden their children and are likely to be passed on to their children when they become adults.

In fact, the “choices” that pay-gap defenders point to as lessening or excusing its inequity—like women staying home to care for children and holding lower-paying jobs—are doubly damaging:  They not only contribute to the gap but serve as disincentives to the performance of work that society badly needs to be done.  Parents being able to choose to care for their children is a good thing.  We should enable such choices—as long as they’re real choices—not burden them.  We need to encourage people to choose careers in lower-paying fields historically populated primarily by women, like teaching and social work, not punish them by paying them less and retarding their career progress.

The curse of the pay gap is thus not only the processes that lead to it but the outcomes it produces: families that cannot afford secure middle-class lives and that will pass on that insecurity to the next generations.

The same can be said, by the way, for income inequalities between races and ethnic groups. They are deleterious not only as the results of discriminatory processes, but as the perpetrators and perpetuators of economic and social deficits that harm not those directly burdened by them but the rest of us as well.

Of course, even a more generous federal government than we now enjoy could not legislate or fund a mandate that lower-paid jobs traditionally held by women receive compensation equal to that traditionally held by women.  But just because we can’t do everything doesn’t mean we can’t do anything.

We could, for example, expand the child-care tax credit to include people—mostly but not exclusively women—who forego paid employment to care for their own children.  We could provide tax or other economic incentives to people who enter jobs, like teaching and social work, that society needs to be done and done well and that are traditionally held by women.  Or we could give women who interrupt careers to care for children guarantees like those we give to those who interrupt careers to serve in the National Guard or the Reserves: that their jobs, salaries and seniority will be waiting for them when they return to work.

Would such measures involve costs?  Yes.  But so does the gender pay gap.  The only question is who should bear them?

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