Speaking at a town hall in Cambridge last week, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) urged her constituents to contact legislators from around the country and encourage their support for equal pay and paid family leave policies.
About 100 people gathered at the Women’s Economic Empowerment Town Hall, held at the Cambridge Community Center on March 21, to hear the congresswoman explain a series of upcoming bills that address economic challenges women face in the workforce and as mothers. U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-7th district) was also scheduled to speak at the town hall but backed out after injuring her knee.
Clark began with a discussion of the cost of childcare, acknowledging it as a substantial burden for many families.
“Infant and toddler care can surpass college tuition here in Massachusetts,” she said.
The crowd, which consisted mostly of adult women and a handful of men and local students, nodded along as Clark spoke.
Clark said she has been emphasizing to her colleagues that childcare and early childhood education are necessary investments in the nation’s future. She said early educators, most of whom are women, are grossly underpaid.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for pre-school teachers in 2017 was $28,990 — barely more than half the national median salary of $44,564 for that year.
Clark asked the audienceto imagine all that could be accomplished if the $8 billion President Donald Trump budgeted for a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico were instead allocated to early education.
Salary transparency, she said, is another important step toward achieving equal pay for working women. The Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 7), which will be debated on the House floor this week, ensures employees can find out how much money their coworkers are earning.
“All we’re asking for is that it’s the same job,” Clark said. “You’re paid the same as your male counterparts and that there is transparency around that.”
She said many working women also face challenges associated with medical or maternity leave.
The proposed FAMILY Act (H.R. 947), she said, would establish an insurance system that working individuals could pay into in advance for guaranteed financial support during a future family or medical leave.
“We have come to discover that the leave is a huge start, but it’s not enough,” Clark said. “So many families can’t afford to take that leave because they need that paycheck.”
Though women only make up 23.7 percent of the 535 members of Congress, Clark said they are “fired up” about making a difference for working women.
Clark took questions about student loan debt, climate change and immigrant protections.
Cambridge City Councilor and former Mayor Denise Simmons said in an interview after the town hall that she was surprised affordable housing was not thoroughly discussed.
Simmons, who was the first black, openly lesbian mayor in the United States and the first black female mayor in Massachusetts, explained that many of the economic challenges women face are interrelated and tie back to the issue of affordable housing.
“If your house-costs burden, then you have less money for childcare,” Simmons said. “If your house-costs burden, you have less money for food or transportation.”
The affordable housing issue filters into every aspect of living, Clark said after the town hall.
“We had someone here tonight who said she grew up in Cambridge but can no longer afford to stay there, and we hear that story over and over,” Clark said.
She urged that the government invest in public housing at the federal level.
Annika Lof, a student at Arlington High School, said the audience questions she heard about student loan debt particularly resonated with her as a young person.
“A lot of the issues addressed, I’ve seen, especially with student loan debt,” the 16-year-old said after the town hall. “I’m in high school, so I don’t have to worry about it yet, but it’s definitely a big thing in the future.”
Hannah Schoenbaum is a Boston University journalism student writing as part of a collaboration between the Cambridge Chronicle and BU News Service.