Today we observe Black Women’s Equal Pay Day. But it’s not a celebration. It’s a sobering reminder of the miles to go for racial and gender equity. July 31st symbolizes the extra seven months into 2017 a black woman would have to work to make the same amount of money a white man did in 2016 alone. That’s four months longer than Women’s Equal Pay Day on April 4th, which marks the same milestone for all women.
A black woman in Washington who worked full time, year round in 2015 made 67.2% of a white man’s income, 87.8% of a white woman’s, and 91.9% of a black man’s. In Washington, black women fare better than they do nationally in all these respects, but very slightly. Nationally, a black woman makes 65.8% of what a white man makes.
Economic opportunities for black women have come along way a lot since the Jim Crow era, when they were disproportionately maids and housekeepers and “separate but equal” was really separate and unequal. Now, half of all black women aged 18 to 24 are enrolled in college and a third of black women are in managerial or professional positions. But even as they progress professionally, their compensation has yet to catch up.
Unlike a few decades ago, it is no longer legal to discriminate based on sex or race. But even without legally enshrined discrimination, yawning pay gaps persist. For instance, in the restaurant industry, white men still tend to get the better-paid jobs, especially in high-end restaurants. That means that on the whole, black female servers are paid 60 percent less than white male servers. While it’s often hard to pinpoint discrimination on a case-by-case basis, when you look at the big picture, it’s clear that bias is keeping black women in a lower wage tier.
The fact that more black women are attending college does not mean that the wage gap will close quickly. At best, educational achievement is a slow-working mechanism toward equality. At worst, education just creates debt with low return on investment in an economy where the American Dream has become a mirage. Since 1979, the gap between black and white people with degrees has grown more than between those without – college-educated black workers make only 81% of what their white counterparts make. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that a black women with a bachelor’s degree makes a median pay of $21.08 an hour, only $3.08 more than a white man with a high school diploma. Put simply, a black woman with the same skills as a white man will still earn significantly less.
When black women are paid less for similar work, they have to work harder and longer to provide for their families. And although all workers across the US have been clocking more hours to make ends meet, that trend is especially true for black women. In 2015, married black women with children worked over 200 hours more per year than married white or Hispanic women with children. For single moms, an unequal wage can mean an unlivable wage, which can sink the family. When black women are paid less and are working more hours, it consistently puts their families at greater risk.
Because the wage gap between black and white has persisted for generations, it also has contributed to a huge wealth gap – not what people earn per year, but the assets in their family that create long-term stability. White households have 13 times more wealth accumulated than black households. That means that even when times are bad, white households are more likely to be able to afford healthcare, housing, education and other necessities for mobility. Even if young black people made as much as their white peers in income, they would still have the wealth gap, because discriminatory policies of the past have effects that last for generations.
Even though the federal Equal Pay Act was passed more than 50 years ago, the wage gap is intractable. Lawmakers are still trying to close the gap, but this year in Olympia, the efforts stalled. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day underscores that wage equality cannot be fixed by simply looking at the disparities between men and women as whole. Black women face the added burden of a history of racial discrimination, which legislators must take into account if they are serious about creating a society where equal work gets equal pay.
This post was written by EOI Policy Intern Denise Huang.
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