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Housing and equal pay top concerns for local women

Despite new laws to help end the gender pay gap and promote opportunities, the newly appointed director of the Minnesota Legislative Office on the Economic Status of Women said Monday that there is more work to do.

“Many women in Minnesota and across the nation are still in pretty dire economic straits,” said Barbara Battiste, who took over the OESW last January after it sat vacant for three years.

Her remarks came at a meeting with local women in the Mayo Professional and Community Center in Red Wing, part of a statewide tour this summer to gather stories about the struggles women face.

Members from the League of Women Voters of Red Wing, HOPE Coalition and United Way shared with her some of the top issues for women in Goodhue County, including access to child care, transportation and housing.

“We’re finding it’s a real challenge for low-income families to find housing that they can afford,” HOPE Coalition President Kris Kvols said.

There is a “crisis in affordability,” according to Battiste, with the state being one of the worst in the Midwest for rental prices.

Less than half of female-headed households own their home, and around 41 percent of those that rent spend more than half of their monthly income on it, she said.

The discussion also touched on the plight of older women and retirees — many of whom are without pensions and dependent on Social Security.

Battiste said these women are paying the price of a lifetime of lower-paying jobs and staying at home to raise children, citing 2007 figures that put the median income of retired women at less than $13,000.

Signs of progress

Among the good news Battiste shared Monday is that Minnesota leads the nation in workforce participation, with an employment rate of around 79 percent for mothers with children under 6. More women also are getting degrees for high-paying jobs.

She further provided a rundown of the Women’s Economic Security Act, a “landmark” collection of bills state lawmakers passed this spring that provides grants for training in nontraditional fields, strengthens workplace protections for women and requires many businesses with state contracts to certify that they are compliant with equal pay laws.

A white woman working full time throughout the year still earns around 80 cents on the dollar compared to men, and that is as low as 57 cents for Latina women, according to a 2014 report by the Center on Women and Public Policy and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota. It estimates the state pay gap won’t close until 2060 at current rates.

A former lobbyist and policy advocate, Battiste said she worked previously to brainstorm legislation to address pay inequality. As director of the nonpartisan OESW, she will continue to research and advise legislators on that and other topics related to women and economics. 

“A lot of people, men and women, tend to think that the gender discrimination problem is solved,” she said. “And it’s not.”

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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