Pay Equity and Single Mothers of Color

Eliminating Race-Based and Gender-Based Wage Gap Key to American Prosperity

Sophia Kerby argues that wage and wealth disparities that hurt women of color also hurts the country’s economy.

Toni Gates, a 24-year old single mother of two who works part time as a nursing assistant  and has trouble supporting herself. Black women earn <a href=69.5 percent, and Hispanic women 60.5 percent, of the earnings of their white male counterparts. (AP/ Morry Gash)" data-srcset=" 450w, 450w, 450w, 450w, 250w" data-sizes="auto" />
Toni Gates, a 24-year old single mother of two who works part time as a nursing assistant and has trouble supporting herself. Black women earn 69.5 percent, and Hispanic women 60.5 percent, of the earnings of their white male counterparts. (AP/ Morry Gash)

Although social and political efforts have been made to close the wage gap and in turn the wealth gap, recent Census data still indicates that women earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. For women of color the gap is even wider: Black women earn 69.5 percent, and Hispanic women 60.5 percent, compared to the earnings of their white male counterparts.

The wage story is just as unequal for single mothers: They make less than men, less than married women, and less than women without children. Adding race to the equation, single mothers of color are hit hardest by the wage gap. Studies show that single mothers of color are much more likely to live in poverty and face significant barriers to creating wealth. Lower wages can often prevent families from engaging in asset- and wealth-building mechanisms such as pension plans because of fewer job benefits and resources. Lower earnings can hinder families from investing and saving their money, a key strategy for building wealth. Additionally, wealth not only impacts economic security but long-term retirement security as well.

While it’s recognized that the racial wealth gap is widespread there is a critical need to understand the intersection of race and gender in accumulating wealth.

Single mothers of color: a snapshot

Single mothers of color face significant barriers in accumulating wealth, leaving many with limited economic security. Poverty rates are higher for single mothers of color compared to white single mothers and two parent households. In 2010 Hispanic and African American single mothers had poverty rates of 50.3 percent and 47.1 percent respectively—significantly higher than the national poverty rate at that time of 15.1 percent.

Likewise, educational attainment is limited for single mothers of color. More than half of single mothers who do not complete their high school careers are women of color; 40 percent are Hispanic and 20 percent are African American. While labor force participation is high among single mothers, they are also more vulnerable to periods of unemployment, often times due to child care and other care needs making it difficult to secure full-time employment and higher wages. Additionally, employed single mothers of color are highly concentrated in service-industry jobs that tend to offer fewer benefits and lower wages. Among single mothers African Americans have the highest rate of unemployment at 11.7 percent followed by Latinas at 8.7 percent. Overall, single mothers of color hold the highest poverty rates and the lowest median income levels, creating unique challenges to building wealth and prosperity for their families.

Potential impact of pay equity

The potential impact of pay equity for single mothers of color is significant. Increasing opportunities to build wealth is crucial to surviving financial setbacks such as an unexpected health emergency or the loss of a job. The ability to build wealth allows families to plan for such situations and stay afloat during hard economic times. It also gives parents the opportunity to help their children financially whether through college tuition or inheritance. A study on pay equity from the late 1990s found that pay equity raised 60 percent of the working poor in occupations dominated by people of color out of poverty. For workers in occupations dominated by women of the color, 52 percent were lifted out of poverty. A more recent report found that pay equity would enable more mothers to purchase health insurance for themselves and their children, thus allowing for positive health outcomes from having higher access to preventative care. The 2011 study from the Wayne County, Michigan Department of Public Health found that the health impact of pay equity for mothers would include reducing early childbirth, depression, and income-related stress and related illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders.

Unequal access to wealth

Income disparities translate into wealth gaps that fall heavily between racial and gender lines. Lower earnings mean fewer opportunities to engage in wealth-building mechanisms such as pension plans or investment in stocks and bonds. A recent report conducted by Women of Color Policy Network found that while white single mothers with children under the age of 18 reported a median wealth of $6,000, Latina and African American single mothers had a median wealth of zero.

The racial wealth differences are consequences of disparities occurring over a lifetime where women of color between the ages of 35-49 have a median wealth of only $5. Prior to age 50 women of color have virtually no wealth. While earnings are important to accumulating wealth, other factors play a significant impact in building wealth such as job-related benefits, including paid sick leave, health insurance, and retirement plans such as pensions and 401k plans. Over time the lack of equitable pay prevents single mothers from taking advantage of wealth-building resources that can allow for building wealth, particularly during potential financial setbacks such as a health emergency or a death in the family.

The immense costs associated with parenthood—which includes housing, food, child care, and health insurance—are made particularly challenging for single mothers who only have one income. Coupled with institutional and structural factors that impede on building wealth such as lower wages and lifetime earnings, single mothers of color are often unable to accumulate wealth and assets. These costs contribute to the economic instability of single mothers and directly impact their ability to save and invest money.

Recommendations and policy suggestions

Analysis by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggests that it will be another 45 years before women reach the earnings of men. Below are suggested recommendations and policy solutions to significantly reduce the pay equity gap between mothers and women of color.

  • Improve and preserve the child tax credit and earned income tax credit. The changes to the earned income tax credit and child tax credit are set to expire at the end of this year, leaving hardworking, low-income families at a crossroads. In 2010 an estimated 4.9 million women were kept out of poverty because of expansions to these refundable tax credits. According to Half in Ten, extending the child tax credit will help low-income working families by counting all family earnings towards the 15 percent credit.
  • Pass legislation to extend paid sick leave benefits. According to CAP’s Paid Family and Medical Leave report, federally required paid family and medical leave programs will likely have positive effects on employment and lifetime income. Requiring employers to provide sick leave not only ensures workers’ rights but will help lessen gender-based pay disparities and positively influence women’s participation in the labor force since women are more likely to use unpaid sick leave to care for their children. 
  • Support legislation to lessen wage gap. Race- and gender-based discrimination adversely impacts mothers and women of color. Legislation that promotes fair wages will reduce income disparities between women of color and other groups.

Adequately addressing and eventually eliminating the income and wealth gap experienced by  women of color and single mothers requires a multifaceted approach, led by engagement at both the state and federal level. Promoting and uplifting single mothers is crucial to a growing economy as working women providing for their families contributes to the nation’s prosperity.  

Sophia Kerby is the Special Assistant for Progress 2050.

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Sophia Kerby

Research Assistant