Jenn Smith | Recess: Future workers need investment in equal pay

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LENOX — For the second year in a row, I participated in a fabulous eighth-grade career day event at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School. Dozens of local business people, laborers, scientists, pilots, musicians and other workforce representatives donated two hours of their respective work days to sit down with students to have face-to-face conversations about their careers.

I sat with more than a dozen bright and personable youths, each with varying interests and skillsets, all who have great potential to contribute as future workers. But as we entered the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, I began to wonder: What will we as a society be able to give to them in the future for their work?

We were only given 15 minutes to talk with each set of students that visited our presentation stations, aka a section of a school cafeteria table. It was enough time to offer some general insights into the workplace and words of encouragement, but neither the time nor the place to get into one of the biggest barriers to success: fair and equal pay.

How could I, on a Friday morning, tell the young women that no matter how hard they work, they are still likely to be paid less than their male counterparts? How could I tell the Hispanic and Latino kids that despite their intelligence, they might never earn as much as their white and Asian peers for doing the exact same job?

When King gave his famed 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., he concluded by sharing his dream, but he began with a demand for "the riches of freedom and the security of justice."

Without equal and accessible opportunities to contribute and to gain the means for mobility, the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness becomes null and void.

Berkshire County offers the second lowest average weekly wage across the commonwealth's counties, $913, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

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The latest data in Massachusetts also shows that women in Massachusetts earn just 83 cents on the dollar. But the earning ability becomes more abysmal on the scale of race. While Asian women tend to earn around 84 cents, Native women only earn 64 cents, African American women are earning 59 cents, and Latina women are earning 51 cents on the dollar.

For teens from low-income families, the struggle against these odds is real. In Massachusetts, teens from low-income families of color work and contribute to 20 percent of their family household income; white teens from low-income backgrounds contribute about 15 percent to the family budget.

If you're a poor or lower-middle class working teen, that means on top of school you're working harder, and if you're a teen of color, you're working harder and earning less.

I highly doubt this ugly math equation will be on the spring MCAS exams, but I think any student today can figure for themselves what this means for they the children, our future.

Factor this into the algebra of higher education aspirations and lending schemes, and you'll realize the difference between graduates going into a career field working to earn and graduates working to pay back a social debt they never signed up for.

"If an employer wants to get someone out of poverty and into a meaningful role as a team member, then they'll need to see the importance of pay levels," 1Berkshire CEO Jonathan Butler told participants of a "Community Conversation on Poverty," held on Friday at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams.

A living wage and benefits will help employees get into the game, but ensuring equal pay will help level the playing field.

Jenn Smith can be reached at jsmith@berkshireeagle.com, at @JennSmith_Ink on Twitter and 413-496-6239.


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