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MBJ FOCUS: Mississippi ranks last in pay equality for women

Tracy DeVries

By BECKY GILLETTE

Mississippi ranks last in the U.S. when it comes to pay equity for women.

“We are now the only state in the nation without some equal pay protections in our state law,” said Tracy DeVries, executive director, Women’s Foundation of Mississippi. “Alabama legislators passed a state equal pay bill last session.” 

According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, Mississippi ranks 51 for women’s employment opportunities and earnings. DeVries said on average, in Mississippi, women make only $.75 compared to every $1 men make. That gap is even wider for women of color. The latest data shows that black women are paid 62 cents on the dollar, native women 57 cents and Latina women just 54 cents compared to white men.

“There is an equal pay bill still alive this year in the Mississippi Legislature, but Mississippi policymakers need to make this a priority and act fast; because, as of now, it will take until 2088 for women to achieve equal pay,” DeVries said. “One of the issues that could be addressed with that legislation is around NOT setting pay based on a worker’s previous income, which allows pay discrimination to follow women (and men) from job to job. We need fair pay so that underpaid workers and their families can get through a crisis like the one we are facing without their health, safety, and well-being being at risk.”

DeVries says the most startling fact from their research is that just by closing the gender wage gap for men and women in similar jobs could, by itself, cut the poverty rate of working women in Mississippi in half.

Globally, unpaid work that women do is estimated to be worth $10 trillion. The gap is larger elsewhere, but in the U.S., men spend 2.4 hours a day — about 17 hours a week — doing unpaid labor, according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Women in the U.S. spend just over four hours doing unpaid labor each day — about 28.5 hours a week.

With the current coronavirus emergency causing widespread business closures, the situation for low-income women regarding child care has become  dire. Some child care centers have had to close because their enrollment is so low and others opted to close out of concern for public health.

“We need child care centers to stay open for parents who need to work,” said Carol Burnett, executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, based in Biloxi. “Child care centers have gotten very little guidance on what to do. So many parents are in need of unemployment insurance at this time. It has just been very difficult. Child care centers have been left to figure it out on their own. Decisions what to do have been a real patchwork in Mississippi. Parents who have to work have concerns about having children go to child care centers, and child care centers are concerned about what they need to do to protect the health, not just of the children and families they serve, but their staff also.”

Burnett said the coronavirus emergency will be a very big bump in the road in obtaining pay equity.

“I worry about impact of the virus on women because a lot of those are in the lowest paid jobs, $7.25 an hour,” Burnett said. “Mississippi still goes by the federal minimum wage. Even though women are about half our state workforce, they make up three quarters of our state’s minimum wage jobs. They are over-represented in those low-income jobs, and those jobs are the ones most likely to be eliminated by this coronavirus process.”

Burnett said she feared the $2 trillion stimulus bill under consideration in Congress at the time this article was written was not going to people in the most need.

“We are eager to see what the details are,” Burnett said. “I’m hoping there is going to be real relief for families who live paycheck to paycheck, and now they don’t have a paycheck. They need to keep their housing. I hope they ease rules about getting assistance for families. I hope these stimulus benefits for small businesses will help these fragile child care centers.”

Burnett said Mississippi could do a much better job using federally funded welfare programs to help people in poverty and the state overall. Burnett said the arrest of former Mississippi Department of Human Services Director John Davis and others has brought a lot of attention to TANF or the federal grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is commonly known as welfare.

Burnett said if the allegations are true, it’s outrageous that these individuals used their positions to embezzle millions from needed services for Mississippi’s poor families, many of whom are single moms with young children.

She said there are also other systemic misuses of TANF in Mississippi including leaving millions of TANF funds unspent. She also is opposed to the state’s punitive measure to prevent fraud that cost more than the fraud itself. One example is expensive drug testing when few recipients were shown to use drugs. Mississippi has been recognized as having the highest level of TANF program integrity in the nation.

TANF funds can be invested to make a real impact. An example Burnett gives is the Moore Community House’s Women in Construction program. Mothers get job training in a profession that pays higher wages than most jobs traditionally held by men, allowing them to go to work and achieve success.

Burnett said there are many other examples like this across the country of TANF investments that work for poor families. “I urge the state to use this moment of attention to TANF to pivot toward investments proven to support poor families’ success.”

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About Becky Gillette