Analysis Law and Policy

Student Debt Is a Women’s Issue

Sheila Bapat

According to earnings statistics, women get far less bang for their buck out of higher education. Recent proposals to reduce student debt could benefit women over the course of their lives—but they may not go far enough.

Because student debt affects a large swath of Americans who struggle to build wealth over the course of their careers, it is primarily discussed as a class and an economic stimulus issue. But student debt is also an issue of particular importance for women. According to earnings statistics, women get far less bang for their buck out of higher education. Recent proposals to reduce student debt could benefit women over the course of their lives—but they may not go far enough.

Women make up the majority of higher education students, yet they earn far less than men with the same degrees. For the past several years women have outnumbered men in undergraduate and master’s programs, and as of 2010 women outnumber men in PhD programs as well. With respect to the two most expensive degrees, law and medicine, in 2009-10 women comprised 45 percent of law school classes, and as of 2011 they made up 48 percent of medical school graduates. This NPR piece from 2010 discusses how even though women are earning more engineering, math, and science PhDs than they were in previous years, women still experience wage disparities in these fields after graduation. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) found in a study last year that the student loan repayment burden is higher for women than for men for a variety of reasons, including the gender pay gap, which begins right after college graduation.

And gender-wage disparities hold true across multiple sectors. Last month the National Women’s Law Center pointed out that on average “women who work full time, year round are paid only 77 cents for every dollar paid to their male counterparts—a pay gap that translates to $11,084 in lost wages annually.” The disparity is even greater for women of color. A study released last month from the National Partnership for Women and Families revealed that of the 50 largest urban cities, not a single one had eliminated the wage gap; neither had any state. There are a variety of causes for the wage gap: leaving the workforce to care for children or parents is still something more women take on, and even after controlling for life choices women on average earn 91 cents to the dollar. Discrimination is believed to account for this chunk of the wage gap.

Women also tend to gravitate toward professions that pay less in general. For example, women dominate the non-profit sector, where the earning potential is far lower than the private sector. Non-profit salaries for management level positions,  which women with higher degrees may aspire to, pay far lower than in the private sector.

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“The existing gender pay gap is making it hard for women, especially women of color, to pay back their student loans,” Working Families Party (WFP) organizer Nelini Stamp told Rewire. WFP is working to reform student loan practices. “The proposals we see to reduce interest rates are a move in the right direction, but instead of just debt relief programs we need to focus on affordability of higher education so we are not sending new generations into debt.”

To help address this issue, some lawmakers are working to reduce federal student loan interest rates, which are set to skyrocket July 1. A proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) goes the furthest by seeking to reduce federal student loan interest rates to 0.75 percent, on par with the interest rate banks pay on some of their Federal Reserve loans. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) advocates a more conservative measure of capping student loan interest rates so that they do not skyrocket during a period of high interest rates.

Elena Peifer is a third-year student at the University of Michigan School Law. She opted not to attend Columbia University School of Law because she would have wound up with $222,000 in debt upon graduation. Even after a strong financial aid package from the University of Michigan Law School, she will still be left with a $45,000 student loan bill upon graduation.

“Forty-five thousand dollars still seems like an exorbitant amount of money, because as a public interest lawyer, I will be making less than that out of law school,” Peifer told Rewire. Peifer chose the more financially sound option, Michigan Law, because she is committed to practicing public interest law with non-profits that pay far less than big law firms do. In general, women who earn law degrees are more likely to pursue lower-paying public interest careers.

Women’s tendency to earn less overall means they will spend a larger percentage of their incomes paying off student debt and may accrue less wealth over time, as a piece in U.S. News and World Report pointed out earlier this month. Though student debt reform is not a solution to the wage gap, it can help improve women’s economic status by enabling them to save more. It can also serve as economic stimulus, as women would have more income to spend.

There are some debt relief programs for students who choose careers in public interest—Peifer is benefiting from at least one—but these options are not widespread.

Jessica Galeria graduates this week with an MBA from the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business, and she will have about $50,000 in debt. She attended business school at night while working for a large non-profit, where she serves as associate director of strategic development and fundraising.

“One of the surprises for me is that there aren’t debt relief programs that were viable for me. I definitely looked into it,” she said. “So in general, I’m laudatory of the federal government efforts to reduce burden of student debt.”

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Missed About the Obstacles Faced After Prison

Victoria Law

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside.

“You’re getting out early.” Those words are music to the ears of anyone behind bars. But on Orange Is the New Black, the women at Litchfield Penitentiary tend to see release as a bogeyman rather than welcome news.

In Season four of the Netflix series, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) learns that she’s eligible for early release. At first, this is hopeful news: Being out of prison means that she can start the process of getting her children and newly born granddaughter out of foster care. But then reality sets in: She’s leaving prison without an education or skills that will help her find a job. Even worse, she now has a criminal record. “Sure, people love to hire ex-cons,” she snaps.

This is not the first time that the show has treated release and reentry as something to be feared rather than welcomed. In the first season, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) is released on parole. Once out, she’s faced with the realities of no housing, no support system, and no job opportunities. Though the show never specifies what she did, Taystee is sent back to prison, where she tells Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) that she deliberately violated her parole so that she could return to Litchfield.

Whether or not they meant to do so, the writers of Orange Is the New Black have sent viewers the message that prison is preferable to life on the outside. And in doing so, the show suggests that the very real systemic obstacles that formerly incarcerated people face upon release, especially where employment is concerned, are impossible to overcome—rather than drawing attention to the importance of dismantling those barriers, and the organizing being done around the country to do so.

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Over 650,000 people leave state and federal prisons each year. For many, finding stable employment is one of the first steps to surviving (and hopefully thriving) outside of prison. It’s frequently a prerequisite to finding their own housing and reuniting their families. For those on probation or parole, being gainfully employed is also a condition of staying out of prison. But finding a job isn’t easy, especially with a gap in employment history and a prison record.

Advocates, however, including formerly incarcerated people, have been working to eliminate one of the most obvious barriers: the question about past felony convictions on an initial job application, popularly known as the “Box.” In many cities, they are succeeding. More than 100 cities have passed “Ban the Box” legislation, which ends that practice of asking about previous convictions on initial applications. In 2015, the federal government also jumped on the Ban the Box wagon with Obama ordering federal agencies to delay inquiries into past felonies during the hiring process.

Ban the Box doesn’t mean that the question of criminal records never comes up. What it does is give job seekers a chance to be considered on their merits and not on their previous actions. If an applicant seems qualified for the job, they will go through the rest of the hiring process like every other applicant does. The question of past convictions may come up at some point during that process, but by then, the person has demonstrated their skills and qualifications for the job before having to explain past mistakes (as well as steps they’ve taken to ensure that they won’t land in a similar situation again).

Ban the Box has been shown to increase employment among formerly incarcerated job seekers. In Minneapolis, Minnesota, between 2004 and 2006, for example, the city hired less than 6 percent of applicants with convictions. Once it passed its version of Ban the Box, however, that percentage jumped to nearly 58 percent. Similarly, in Durham, North Carolina, the number of people hired for municipal jobs increased nearly sevenfold after it passed similar protections in 2011.

However, Ban the Box isn’t enough to ensure that formerly incarcerated job seekers are given a chance. Legislation needs to go hand-in-hand with a cultural shift toward people coming home from prison. Maria C., who returned to New York City in 2011 after a two-year incarceration for drugs, knows this firsthand. In 2015, New York City banned the box. But even before it did so, city law prohibited employers from making decisions based on convictions unrelated to the job being sought.

On paper, that should have meant that Maria should not have encountered discrimination from prospective employers. As Maria explained to Rewire in an interview, in reality, she still struggled to find work, although it is difficult to say how much her prior conviction and imprisonment weighed in prospective employers’ decision-making processes.

She applied for a job at a national wholesale chain. “Their website said they were ex-con friendly,” she recounted. Maria was called in for an interview, tested negative for drugs, and was told that the company would conduct a background check. After the background check, however, she was told that she did not get the job. She applied to other stores and supermarkets; from those, she received no response at all.

Finally, through an employment program of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit which helps people with reintegration after their release from prison, she found a job at a laundromat.

One afternoon, two months into her new job, she told her boss that she had to leave work early to see her parole officer. “After that, they started getting picky with me,” she told Rewire. Shortly after, she was let go.

The Fortune Society helped her find a second job at a warehouse. But a few months after she was hired, she said that the boss told her, “We’ll call you when we need you.” She never received a call.

At both jobs, Maria says she was asked about her record. She explained the circumstances of her arrest and incarceration as well as what she had accomplished since that time. That’s why she’s puzzled as to why she was let go after a few months. Maria spent five years in New York City; with the exception of the handful of months at the laundromat and warehouse, she remained unemployed.

Maria now lives in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a city that takes up 4.2 square miles and has a population of about 25,000 people. Lebanon and the surrounding county have a median household income of $56,000 and fewer than 3,000 employers. However, Lebanon also has a work release program, through which people in the local jail system are allowed to work in the community during the day before returning to the jail for the night. The presence of the work release program—especially in a comparatively small community—means that employers are almost certainly more accustomed to job seekers and employees who have criminal records. Within a week of arriving, Maria found work through a temp agency at a food factory where she packs croutons, chocolate, and mashed potatoes.

New York state also has a work release program; in 2010, nearly 2,000 people participated. Even so, the same willingness to hire formerly incarcerated people hasn’t seemed to manifest on a wide scale. Maria knows that the only way formerly incarcerated people like her will find jobs is if there’s a shift in culture and perceptions. Employers “should give people a chance to be able to succeed,” she said. “But employers don’t want to give them a chance.”

As Maria’s experience shows, part of this shift involves policies that create incentives to hire formerly incarcerated people. Some of these policies, like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, already exist. New York City itself has promoted the Fair Chance Act, its version of Ban the Box, even placing ads on the subway informing formerly incarcerated New Yorkers and their potential employers of this new protection. Local and federal agencies should take similar measures to promote existing opportunities.

Or, for example, consider the model of the Johns Hopkins Health System (JHHS) in Baltimore, Maryland, the state’s largest employer of formerly incarcerated people. In 2014 alone, the hospital hired more than 120 people with past prison records and, between 2009 to 2012, 430 formerly incarcerated people overall. “With 9,000 incarcerated people returning to Baltimore each year, the JHHS wanted to contribute to community re-integration efforts by providing employment opportunities,” Yariela Kerr-Donovan, the director of Johns Hopkins’ Department of Human Resources, stated in an interview with the nonprofit Senate Presidents’ Forum. To do so, they sought a Department of Justice training grant and partnered with community colleges and a training firm specifically to train people for positions inside the health system. This is a model that other large businesses can—and should—emulate.

The real-life job market is already stacked against women of color. As late as 2013, women of all races and ethnicities earned only 78 percent of what men earned. For many women of color, the wage gap widens—Black women were paid 64 percent of their white male counterparts. For Latinas, that wage gap widened to 54 percent and for Native Americans to 59 percent. (Surprisingly, Asian-American women showed the smallest wage gap, earning 90 percent of their white male counterparts. I’d like to know which Asian-American women’s incomes were surveyed and how many were members of underpaid and largely invisible workforces, such as domestic service or beauty industries, across the country.)

Now add in the disproportionate conviction and incarceration of women of color, which often exacerbates a lack of marketable skills, and you can see why efforts like Ban the Box are a necessary first step. Without a shift, however, in the ways that formerly incarcerated people are viewed—as potential workers, neighbors, and members of society—Ban the Box won’t be enough.

One show won’t make the sweeping changes necessary to overcome decades of institutional discrimination. But it can change individual hearts, minds, and hiring practices. Through Aleida’s release, Orange Is the New Black now has a storyline that could address some of the obstacles women face upon release, including employment discrimination and wage inequality. It remains to be seen whether the next season will make good on that opportunity.