May 14, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 20

Community & Editorial

For black women in Washington state, the gender pay gap is just one barrier to economic mobility

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A comprehensive report by the Black Women’s Roundtable, a nonprofit that seeks equitable public policy, details the multitude of disparities faced by black women living, working and raising families in the United States. The report assessed conditions of black women in areas of health, education, labor force participation, wages, retirement security, safety, civic engagement and more.

The report’s findings include:

- Maternal mortality is especially high among black women, who are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

- Black women are disproportionately victims of violence.

- Black women are more likely than women of any other racial group to work, especially among mothers.

- Despite strides in educational attainment, black women are the most likely group to work for poverty-level wages.

- Due to the wage gap and over-representation in low-wage fields, black women over 65 have the lowest household incomes of any demographic group.

It is clear that race matters when it comes to economic mobility. A study from the Economic Opportunity Institute called “Chutes and Ladders” found that black people born into the lowest tier of the income scale were less likely to achieve upward mobility when compared to their white counterparts. Nationally, nearly two-thirds of black people are raised in the bottom quintile, compared to just 11 percent of white people. People of color, and especially women of color, are much more likely to work minimum-wage jobs and live below the poverty level. The racial wealth gap is significantly worse than the income gap and has widened over the past several decades, according to a report issued last year by the Urban Institute.

The reality is that discrimination is a significant factor in the disparities that people of color face every day. However, holes in public policy have no doubt contributed to increasing inequality.

Here in Washington, there are several solutions that would have dramatic impacts for the state’s women of color:

Paid sick and safe days: Nationally, 62 percent of black workers and 47 percent of Latino workers have access to paid sick leave, compared with 64 percent of white workers. In addition to time to recover from illness or care for a sick loved one, the law enacted in Seattle and a bill proposed for statewide coverage ensure access to paid time off for victims of domestic violence. Paid sick leave also allows time for preventive care, including prenatal and wellness visits.

Family and medical leave insurance: Women of color are less likely to use paid leave to care for a new child, largely due to decreased access. Implementation of paid family leave in California led to increases in average duration of maternity leave from one to seven weeks for black mothers and from four to seven weeks for white mothers. Paid leave also increases duration of breastfeeding, which provides long-term benefits to children.

Raise the minimum wage and eliminate wage gaps: Gender and racial wage gaps are persistent and pervasive. Women make up 47 percent of Washington’s labor force, but 56 percent of minimum-wage workers. Similarly, people of color make up 27 percent of our labor force, but 38 percent of those earning the minimum wage. A minimum-wage increase and elimination of wage gaps would help to secure economic stability for women of color, as well as all low-wage workers.

Addressing the disparities faced by black women would certainly increase their ability to achieve upward mobility, and it would also address the roadblocks to economic security faced by so many Washington workers and their families. Good jobs —  those that provide a living wage, paid leave, retirement contributions and health coverage — have become increasingly scarce, despite a more experienced and better educated workforce. Without policy interventions, those at the bottom rungs will continue to fall further behind.

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