For Black Women, The Wage Gap Can Be A Matter Of Life And Death


The consequences of an unequal playing field are both far-reaching and devastating.

Today is Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, a campaign that draws attention to a startling fact: In order to earn the same amount of money a white man did in 2016, a Black woman would have had to work from January 1, 2016 until today — about seven months longer.

It’s a particularly stark reminder of how, after more than 50 years, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 has failed to live up to its promise. Still today, women earn 80 cents for every dollar men make — and the pay gap for Black women is even wider. Black women make only 63% of what white men earn and 76% of what white women earn. This pay gap amounts to approximately $840,040 in lost income for Black women over the course of a 40-year career. Black women would have to work an additional 23 years to earn what a white man makes in 40 years.

Simply put: The economic playing field for Black women is far from equal. And this leads to consequences that are both far-reaching and devastating.

Black women would have to work an additional 23 years to earn what a white man makes in 40 years.

Before diving into these impacts, it’s important to dispel two nefarious myths that persist in our culture: Black women don’t work hard enough, and we live in a post-racial America. In reality, gendered and racialized forces are starkly to blame for enduring inequity.

According to The Status of Black Women in the United States, a report the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Domestic Workers Alliance released in June, more than 60% of Black women are in the workforce, making them the only group of women with a higher workforce participation rate than their male counterparts, and one of two racial/ethnic groups of women with the highest participation rates among women (the other is women who identify as “Other Race” or “Two or More Races”). And yet, 24.6% of Black women live in poverty, while only 18.9% of Black men and 10.8% of white women do.

In May, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Roosevelt Institute issued the report Justice Doesn’t Trickle Down: How Racialized and Gender Rules are Holding Women Back. Andrea Flynn, the report’s author, stated that the purpose of the report “was to show why broad blanket progressive policies are insufficient and illustrate why we need race- and gender-inclusive policies.”

There are myriad examples of how sexism and racism continue to hold Black women back. To take but one example, American railway companies and restaurants fought to retain the 19th century practice of tipping to avoid paying freed Black slaves who worked in those industries. Today, women of color make up the majority of tipped workers and bear the burden of wage disparities and low wages in the restaurant industry. It has also been shown that employers are less likely to interview candidates who have African American-sounding names. Examples like this help explain why Black unemployment is significantly higher than white unemployment at all education levels.

These pay inequities in turn have sweeping impacts, including the magnification of economic vulnerability. Although wage disparities for Black women are seen at all income levels, the largest pay gap exists for low-earning Black women — who are already the most economically fragile. More than one-third of Black women are in the bottom earnings quartile, while only 12.4% are in the top quartile. Black women are also overrepresented in low-paying jobs. Almost 28% of employed Black women work in service occupations, which are the lowest paid jobs and often lack predictable schedules and benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave.

The pay gap further ensures that Black women have less money to purchase necessities like quality housing and childcare, to create a safety net for emergencies, or to plan for retirement and build wealth for themselves and future generations. As of 2013, the median wealth (defined as assets minus debts) for single Black women was $200, compared to $300 for single Black men, $15,640 for single white women, and $28,900 for single white men — a staggering disparity.

Black and Hispanic women are also less likely to be employed by companies that offer retirement plans. And even when they have access to such plans, more than 25% of them are unable or choose not to participate for such reasons as cost or being ineligible because they work part-time.

Closing the pay gap for Black women isn’t just a matter of fairness; it’s a matter of life and death. More than four in 10 Black women experience physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes, compared to about three in 10 of all women. Economic abuse and vulnerability make abused women more dependent on intimate partners and keeps them stuck in abusive relationships. Pay equity for these women would provide better means to be independent and make decisions that ensure their safety.

Closing the pay gap for Black women isn’t just a matter of fairness; it’s a matter of life and death.

Wage disparities for Black women additionally contribute to their negative health outcomes. Pay inequity and low wages prevent many Black women from being able to afford health insurance and limits their access to health care. Still others must choose between accessing medical care and foregoing a paycheck. More than one-third of employed Black women do not have access to paid sick days. In 2013, prior to the implementation of some key provisions of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), 22% of Black women were uninsured, compared to 13% of white women. In 2014, 16.5% of nonelderly Black women did not have health insurance coverage.

Many of the states with the lowest health insurance coverage rates for Black women were those that did not adopt the ACA’s expansion of Medicaid eligibility guidelines. Black women being uninsured or underinsured increases the health disparities that already exists for them, by preventing them from seeking preventive medical care or delaying diagnosis and treatment of illnesses. Given the increased incidence and mortality rates for Black women, they cannot afford to be uninsured. For example, Black women have the highest heart disease and breast cancer mortality rates among women. As Republicans, despite continued defeat, continue to talk about dismantling the ACA, more Black women — and more people from all demographic groups — will face the possibility of being uninsured and not being able to access health care.

More broadly, economic injustice suffered by Black women leads to economic instability for the Black community writ large. Black families depend on Black women’s earnings. Over 80% of Black mothers are breadwinners in their household, either as the sole breadwinner or by earning at least 40% of the marital income — the highest among all racial/ethnic groups.

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According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, spending 10% of family income on child care is the standard for affordability. In all but two states, the average costs of child care are more than 20% of Black women’s median annual earnings. Among women, Black and Hispanic women are most likely to provide unpaid caregiving to adult family members.About one in six Black women under the age of 65 lives with a person aged 15 or older with one or more disabilities.

When Black women are paid less for the same work, they lose much more than money; the extent and effects of Black women’s wage disparities are both sobering and detrimental. Racial discrimination, the additional discrimination LGBTQ and gender non-conforming individuals face, overrepresentation of Black women and women of color in service industry jobs, the cumulative effect of unequal wages over the course of their careers, and seemingly race-neutral policies that have a disparate impact on Black women all contribute to the pay gap and economic insecurity for Black women. As politicians focus on the economy, and Republicans and Democrats continue to battle for the votes of the white working class, wage and other disparities for Black women continue to be overlooked.

“Focusing only on economic policies and white working class voters means a lot of people will be left behind,” Ms. Flynn stated. “Not only will this strategy not work, but it will be harmful. The inequities experienced by women of color will only be worsened.”

When Black women are paid less for the same work, they lose much more than money.

There are various strategies that can combat economic injustice suffered by Black women — starting with laws that prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about their salary history. Pay inequity continues, in part, because employees often don’t know their colleagues’ salaries. In fact, approximately 50% of private companies will fire employees who disclose their salaries. If Congress passes the Paycheck Fairness Act, employers would be prohibited from retaliating against employees who ask about wages or disclose their pay. Transparency about wages would make employers more accountable and provide Black women with more bargaining power in salary negotiations.

Enacting laws that ensure a living wage for workers in the service industry is another step toward higher wages and pay equity for Black women. For example, passing One Fair Wage laws would abolish the restaurant industry’s two-tiered system of wages that pays tipped workers $2.13/hour and require restaurants to pay all employees at least the regular minimum wage. This would address pay inequity for Black women while benefiting all women and workers.

Black women have already done the work — and equal pay is long overdue.