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Racial Wealth Divide

Making 64 Cents for Every Dollar

Research & Commentary
July 30, 2015

by Marc Bayard Kimberly Freeman Brown

On Black Women’s Pay Equity Day, experts weigh in on income inequality for African-American women.

By Kimberly Freeman Brown and Marc Bayard genderpaygap

This past Tuesday was Black Women’s Pay Equity Day—an important milestone for the 16.6 million Black working women in America. It marks how far into the year African-American women must work to earn what a White man earned last year. That’s right—it has taken Black women 209 days into 2015 to make what White men made by the end of 2014. An African-American woman earns just 64 cents on the dollar earned by a White man.

Despite having the highest labor force participation rate of all women—even while mothers of small children—Black women’s earnings are 14 cents less than the 78-cent national average for all women. Equal Pay Day for all women was celebrated this year on April 12th.

To turn a phrase from Tupac’s 1993 ode to Black women, “Keep Ya Head Up,” Black women are literally trying to make a dollar out of 64 cents.

Wage inequality is only one aspect of Black working women’s struggle to make ends meet.  Linda Burnham, National Research Director for the National Domestic Worker Alliance, wrote recently in her piece, Gender and the Black Job Crisis, that Black women’s economic realities are shaped by a double jeopardy resulting from both women and African Americans being overrepresented in low-wage economic sectors and jobs such as health support, fast food and retail sales. Burnham reports that Black women are concentrated in some low-wage jobs at double or triple the rate of their share of the employed. For example, 61.9 percent of all food preparation and serving workers, which includes fast-food workers, are women who earn a mean annual wage of $18,000. Despite making up about 13.1 percent of the total number employed, Black women represent 20.5 percent of this workforce. Among nursing, psychiatric and home health aides—occupations where women are 88.5 percent of the total number employed—Black women represent 35.9 percent of this workforce, which earns a mean annual wage of $24,700.

Erratic scheduling—yet another hallmark of low-wage work in sectors of our economy such as retail, restaurant work and healthcare support—makes fulfilling basic family responsibilities or taking on a second job next to impossible.

These realities have tremendous consequences for families that rely on the income of Black women, who are three times more likely than White women to be single heads of households with children under the age of 18. No doubt about it—Black women need every hard-earned penny that they rightfully earn.

“Why not pay a mother like we would pay a man?” asks Rachel Bryan, a journeyman electrician and a community liaison for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 595 in Dublin, CA.

Working in a White male-dominated field as an electrician isn’t always easy, but Bryan knows access to such family-supporting careers in the building and construction trades is an important pathway out of poverty for Black women and their families. She also knows that being in a field like hers that is highly unionized is a way to close the wage gap.

In her work as a community liaison for the IBEW, Bryan often asks young people of color, many of whom grew up in households with just their mothers, “Was there too much money in the household?” Too often the response to Bryan’s inquiry is an admission that their families struggled financially. That’s why she tirelessly works to ensure that women and people of color gain access to career paths like hers. “There are so many lives we could change if more money was there.”

Bryan is one of a number of Black women labor leaders who are at the forefront of some of the most innovative, successful efforts to achieve pay equity and put Black working women and all workers squarely on the path toward economic security.

A new report titled And Still I Rise examines their successful efforts to organize more Black women into unions, where on average they earn more than $4 per hour more and are 20 percent more like to have health care. Others profiled are leading efforts such as Fight for 15, a national movement among fast-food workers that has recently secured minimum wage increases in New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The increase to $15 an hour will be phased in over the coming years.  Still others profiled in the report have ensured that major, local construction projects hire more Black workers from surrounding communities.

“As a single mom who raised two sons, I know the value of good-paying jobs to put food on the table and keep the lights on,” says Valerie Ervin, a former United Food and Commercial Worker (UFCW) grocery store cashier who rose through the ranks of labor leadership and eventually became an elected official in Montgomery County, MD. “For the sake of Black families and all working families, pay equity has to be a priority national policy issue.” Ervin, who is also profiled in And Still I Rise, is now running for Congress in Maryland’s District 8 and vows to fight for the right of workers—especially working moms.

It’s time to make 2015 the last year we observe Black Women’s Pay Equity Day. The countless stories of hard-working Black women who are struggling to make a dollar out of 64 cents should be our nation’s clarion call for building an economy that truly works for everyone.

Kimberly Freeman Brown (@kfreemanbrown) is the author of And Still I Rise: Black Labor Women’s Voices, Power and Promise, and the former Executive Director of American Rights at Work, a national labor policy organization that merged with Jobs with Justice in 2012. Marc Bayard (@marcbayard) is a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Director of the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, which published the And Still I Rise in May 2015.

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