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Minorities & the wage gap

Money in handThe gap between what black and white Mississippi workers earn is still substantial, despite 25 years of advances for African American Mississippians.

That’s the bottom line of a report on the economic status of African Americans in the state by Dr. Marianne Hill, senior economist at the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning.

Blacks make up 37 percent of the state population and about one-third of the working age population (25 to 64 years old). Black Mississippians earn about 69 percent of white workers’ median salaries; nationally they make 80 percent.

Black women workers in Mississippi are at the lowest end of the salary scale, according to Hill. They earn only 69 percent of the national median pay for black women, while black men earn 80 percent as much as the national median.

As bad as some of the numbers are, Hill said Mississippi is not the worst state when comparing the male-female wage gap. “But if you look at the gap between black women and white men, we’d be way down there,” Hill said.

In 2011 dollars, the latest three-year census estimates for median year-round fulltime earnings for white men amounted to $44,028 and for white women, $32,917. Among blacks, men earned $29,863 and women just $24,572.

“So the black woman now earns 55.8 percent of what the white man earns, a bit of an improvement from the 2006 census data but still not acceptable,” Hill said. The white woman earns 74.8 percent.

The Mississippi Economic Policy Center compared self-sufficiency by gender and found that 26 percent of African American women with a bachelor’s degree have inadequate income. The figure for white men with just a high school diploma is 19 percent.

Much of the wage gap for women of all races can be traced to their career choices, said Jamie Bardwell, director of programs for the Women’s Fund of Mississippi.

“Essentially, women are really clustered into careers that pay less,” she said.

In Mississippi women are clustered into sales, office and administrative support, food preparation and serving, production and personal care and service, according to the Mississippi Economic Policy Center.

“Those just don’t pay a wage that allows for self-sufficiency,” Bardwell said.

She said the average wage of a child care worker on the Coast is $18,570 a year. The average wage for an electrician is $42,500.

Women choose to go into lower wage jobs, Bardwell said, because “they are accustomed to going into a field they are familiar with. Their family and friends are in it, it’s cultural. There needs to be a shift to STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

But the wage gap isn’t just about individual choices, Bardwell said. It’s also about workplace policies, in particular inadequate family and medical leave policies.

“The Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, only guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and only applies to companies with 50 or more employees,” she said. “Few women can afford to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Women often have lower wages because they are primary caregivers and must enter and exit the workforce when they have children. The United States is the only high-income country without paid family leave. Paid maternity leave is good for women’s long-term wages and good for infants’ health.”

Bardwell said it’s also true that workplace discrimination does exist and can contribute to the wage gap. “There are many complex reasons why the wage gap exists,” she said. “Individuals must take responsibility for their career choices but employers also need to implement family friendly policies.”

Bardwell said getting more women into nontraditional careers is another key strategy to increasing women’s wages.

Hill cites in her report on the economic status of African Americans in Mississippi that the wage gaps resulting from race and sex “can be reduced through a lessening of the social pressures which steer women and minorities into certain occupations.”

Employers, for example, could encourage minority men and women to enter nontraditional occupations by offering training to their employees and doing a better job recruiting minority employees for those jobs. Schools could also do a better job of encouraging students to consider nontraditional career studies.

Hill said there are many ways the community can reduce the disparities between blacks and whites, such as expanding successful programs such as Head Start and learning from model programs in the public and private sectors.

Bardwell said the Women’s Fund of Mississippi recently awarded a grant to five community colleges in the state to help women earn a GED and become certified in IT for health care and manufacturing and in IT core curriculum.

The pilot program is based on a similar approach at the Aspen Institute.

“Closing the wage gap is good for the economy because women put that money back into the economy because they are primary or co-breadwinner for two thirds of families nationally and in Mississippi,” Bardwell said.

The main recommendation of Hill’s study “is that the state monitor outcomes by race and gender of the major programs aimed at improving workforce skills, educational attainment, job opportunities and the development of locally-owned businesses.

Tracking and evaluating the success of Mississippi’s programs in advancing its citizenry, not only on average, but also within each demographic group, is basic to improving program outcomes.”


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