Over half a century after the signing of the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women are still paid less than men, are more likely to live in poverty, and comprise the vast majority of workers in low-wage jobs, new research by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) has found.
While this represents a “grave” concern to women at all wage levels and within every occupational and educational category, the numbers show that the gender pay gap is a double whammy for women of color, who not only earn less than white men but consistently fare worse than even their white counterparts in the job market.
In 2014, the median woman earned $15.21 an hour, 82.9 percent of the $18.35 hourly wage of the median man. When compared with white men, the highest-earning demographic in the United States, white women earned 81.8 percent of the median hourly wage, but that number fell to 65.1 percent for Black women, and to 58.9 percent for Latina women.
“Women of color absolutely experience a kind of double penalty, in terms of both race and gender, when it comes to wage inequality,” the report’s co-author, Alyssa Davis, told Rewire in a phone interview.
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The gender wage gap has been steadily shrinking since 1979, but EPI’s research suggests that could be the result of men’s wages stagnating or actually declining over the past 40 years, coupled with the fact that overall wages have failed to keep pace with productivity.
Had the wage gap been closed over the last three decades, the median woman’s hourly wages would be 70 percent higher today—close to $26.04, by EPI’s estimates. Given current trends, however, it is unlikely that women of color would have shared equally in that increase.
According to EPI data, women make up the bulk of workers in low-wage occupations, including care work, service jobs, and retail, accounting for 55.9 percent of all workers who would benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage from its current hourly rate of $7.25 to $12 by 2020.
Numerous government officials and policymakers have endorsed such a move by way of bills like the Raise the Wage Act, though the recent nationwide protests involving tens of thousands of workers in hundreds of cities calling for $15 an hour suggests that many do not even consider $12 an hour to be a living wage.
Women of color stand to gain the most from proposed wage hikes, since they are vastly overrepresented in low-paying sectors.
Data released last month by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) reveals that women as a whole comprise two-thirds of the United States’ roughly 23 million low-wage employees, defined in the report as people earning $10.50 per hour or less. But Black and Latina women’s share of these jobs is far greater than their share of the overall workforce.
Black women, for instance, make up just 6 percent of the total workforce but constitute 11 percent of workers in the low-wage economy, while Latina women represent 15 percent of low-wage workers, more than double their 7 percent share of the overall workforce. By contrast, white women’s share of low-wage jobs is more consistent with their share of the total workforce (34 percent and 31 percent respectively).
EPI researchers also note that while 29.6 percent of all working women would benefit from a higher federal minimum wage, that number rises to 37.1 percent for women of color.
Data from the National Urban League and the NWLC shows that 3.1 million working Black women, or 37 percent of the Black female workforce, would get a raise if the federal minimum wage went up to $12 an hour; the same would hold true for 4.2 million working Latinas, or 43 percent of the total Latina workforce.
Within the low-wage workforce, tipped workers face an even greater likelihood of living in poverty, given that the base salary for many servers and other tipped employees has held steady at $2.13 per hour since 1991.
Not only are women vastly overrepresented in this demographic, accounting for two-thirds of tipped workers (though women as a whole comprise just 48.3 percent of the total workforce), but the gender pay gap means that female tipped workers earn less than men—$10.07 and $10.63 per hour respectively—a disparity that widens even further for women of color.
According to data released jointly by the NWLC and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Latinas comprise 10.9 percent of tipped workers, far higher than their share of the overall workforce. A 2014 NCLR poll revealed that 40 percent of working Latinas were “extremely concerned” about their wages failing to keep up with expenses, while 43 percent suggested that they struggled to pay their monthly bills.
“Raising the threshold of the tipped minimum wage or eliminating it altogether would have a huge impact on millions of Latinas,” Stephanie Roman, an economic policy analyst at NCLR, told Rewire.
Involuntary part-time work, another major contributor to low wages, disproportionately affects women, with 4.7 percent of women who work part-time preferring full-time employment, compared to 3.5 percent of men.
Within this demographic as well, women of color experience higher rates of involuntary part-time employment, with 7.5 percent of Latina women and 6 percent of Black women preferring to work full-time, compared to 4.4 percent of white women, the EPI paper said.
Because they are disproportionately marginalized across the economic spectrum, women of color stand to gain most from several of the 12 proposals contained in EPI’s “Women’s Economic Agenda,” an accompaniment to the report released Wednesday.
Davis told Rewire monetary policies that target unemployment, higher minimum wages, and strengthening women’s collective bargaining rights could shrink the wage gap. This is particularly for Black and Latina workers: Davis noted that Latinas represented by unions have 42.1 percent higher median weekly earnings than those without representation.
In general, full-time women workers protected by labor unions have higher median weekly earnings across the board, though unionized white women tend to earn more ($923 per week) than their Black or Latina counterparts, who earn median weekly wages of $788 and $739 respectively.
Researchers from the NWLC said in a phone interview with Rewire that certain policies, which did not make it onto the EPI agenda, “such as access to reproductive health care, including access to contraception, could also play an integral part in increasing women’s economic security.”
This is particularly true for women of color, as researchers have linked disparities in access to reproductive care to far higher rates of unintended pregnancies among Black and Latina women than white women, which in turn are linked to “myriad social and economic challenges.”
Noting that women with bachelor’s degrees are the only demographic to be underrepresented within the low-wage economy, NWLC Director of Research and Policy Analysis Katherine Gallagher Robbins said, “In light of incidents like the Spring Valley High School assault, it is critical to provide girls of color with safe, healthy school environments that could … help them achieve college degrees and higher paying jobs.”
Roman also noted that permanent expansions to earned income tax credits (EITC) and child tax credits (CTC) would specifically benefit women of color.
“If these expansions are lost … millions of Latino families and a lot of single-mother families that really depend on this tax refund in order to make purchases or savings would really lose out,” she said.
However, much of the available data on these policies is not disaggregated to highlight the impacts on women of color. Roman called this a “larger issue in research”: that smaller population groups are often seen as an afterthought.
“If we want to center and frame the issues that women of color face, which are often different from issues affecting the ‘all-women’ category, or even white women as a sub-group, then we need to stop putting their experiences in a breakout box, or in the appendix table,” she said.