The U.S. Mint and Treasury recently unveiled a stunning new commemorative gold coin featuring the Statue of Liberty. While these coins usually only generate fanfare in the coin collecting world, this one has gained broader attention because Lady Liberty is gracing the $100 coin as a black woman.
While the coin makes an important symbolic statement, it would take an average black woman significantly longer to earn that $100 than it would take the average white man. The pay gap is bad for women as a group, but it’s far worse for women of color.
The average black woman earns just 63 cents to the dollar that the average white man makes. That’s nearly one quarter less than what the average woman in the United States brings home in her paycheck.
The reasons for this pay gap are complex. Black women are more likely to work in low paying jobs – service, health care support, and education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, five percent of black women work in minimum wage jobs – a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group.
The minimum wage buys less today than it did in 1968 when it reached an inflation-adjusted peak of $8.54. Today, the federal minimum wage is set at $7.25, last adjusted in 2009 and has been losing value due to inflation ever since.
Black women are overrepresented in low-paying jobs and they are underrepresented in the highest earning ones. Only 12 percent worked in management, business, or financial operations positions. They make up less than one percent of the engineering workforce, and three percent of computing.
The recent box office hit, “Hidden Figures” follows the story of three black women working at NASA in the early days space program. Their story has not been told, until now. Our country has long depended on the contributions of women from all races, even if they haven’t always been compensated fairly.
As surprised as we were to learn about the vital role that black women had at NASA in the 1960s, we should be even more shocked to realize that not much has changed since those days. In 1979, black women earned nearly as much as white women, with just a six percent difference.
Now the pay gap has ballooned, with black women earning 22% less. Despite the laws passed in the 1960s guaranteeing women equal pay and equal employment opportunities, we are slipping farther and farther away from equality.
Critics of equal pay like to argue that the pay gap can be simply explained away by “women’s choices.” It’s hard to argue that more women choose to work in low-paying service jobs of their own free will. Generation after generation of unequal pay has made it difficult for families of color to accumulate wealth, and thereby to afford higher education.
Black women attend college at roughly two-thirds the rate of white women, black women often start their careers at a disadvantage, without the same opportunities to get ahead.
The pay gap has the harshest consequences for children. Over half of black, working wives were the primary breadwinner in their family. These working mothers are bringing home far lighter paychecks than those of their white counterparts. 29 percent of black women live in poverty, compared to 11 percent of white women. Discrimination in pay isn’t just unfair to one employee – it disadvantages an entire family.
Raising the minimum wage could help end some of the pay disparity. Far more needs to be done to ensure that women of all races are represented in the highest earning fields. We are missing out when we close certain sectors off to women with untapped potential.
February is Black History Month. While we look back at the accomplishments and contributions that black men and women have added to American history we must also remember that not all forms of injustice were in the past. Until every woman has the same opportunity – not on paper, but in reality – to provide for her family, we have more work to do.