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President and CEO of the Mississippi Urban League talks pay discriminations and wage gaps

Vice Pres. Kamala Harris convened a roundtable discussion on Equal Pay Day with women leaders of advocacy organizations, AP (March 24)

Mississippi is the only state in the nation without an equal pay law.

This considering women in the state make up half the workforce and are the majority of breadwinners in more than half of families, and share the role in a quarter of households. Nearly 60% live below the poverty level.

On Sept. 14, 2021, the U.S. Census released its national Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance rates for 2020. While the numbers don’t capture the full picture due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, they do tell a national story of increasing poverty and a persistent gap between the haves and have nots, especially for women, especially for communities of color.

Mississippi has often had the highest poverty rate and the highest uninsured rate for women, ranking the state last in health outcomes for women and children. Moreover, Mississippi is one of the worst states in the nation for equal pay between men and women, meaning they have some of the largest gaps between the median income of women and white, non-Hispanic men.

Nearly 60 years after passage of the federal Equal Pay Act, will 2021 be the year when Mississippi’s women get a commitment to equal pay for equal work?

Closing the wage gap is essential for the economic empowerment of Mississippi women and their families and the communities in which they live. Equity in pay would provide the additional income needed by women to create a better economic life for themselves and their families. It is estimated that such a move would reduce the state’s poverty level by half.

In the U.S., the median annual income for a man holding a full-time job, working 12 months out of the year, is $57,456, while his female counterpart of the same status earns $47,299. The difference represents a wage gap of $10,157 which means that women make 82 cents for every dollar made by a man.

When we look at Mississippi, women are doing worse as it relates to pay equity, as for each dollar made by a man, a woman makes only 75 cents in comparison. Even worse, Black women in Mississippi only earn 56 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, less than what women on average were making in 1963.

What’s at stake for women over a 40-year work life is the loss of $415,560, which for women of color is double the amount at more than $800,000 annually. These lost wages can mean the difference in securing needed housing, health insurance benefits and child care.

In the U.S., mothers with children under 18 are breadwinners in half of the families. Women head 34 million households in the U.S., with nearly 8.2 of those households living below the poverty level, impacting two million children under 18 years of age.

These numbers track in Mississippi where women make up half the workforce and are the majority of breadwinners in more than half of families.

Hardworking Mississippi women are being shortchanged by the lack of equity in pay practices. The good news is that resolving this long-standing issue is within the power of Mississippi employers and policymakers by:

  • Creating and enacting an equal pay law that helps to mitigate pay inequities.

  • Raising the current minimum wage.

  • Building pathways that will allow women entry into non-traditional, male-dominated jobs.

  • Helping to create more available and affordable high-quality child care to allow women to engage in employment.

  • Banning employers from asking prospective employees about their previous pay histories.

  • Protecting workers who discuss their compensation from retaliation.

We need to safeguard the future for Mississippi women by taking what began in 1963 and building on it. The protections intended to create economic parity will allow a greater level of economic prosperity for more individuals in our state. If we want Mississippi to truly thrive, we must ensure that women thrive.

Portia Ballard Espy is the president and CEO of the Mississippi Urban League.

To hear the Equal Pay Legislative Hearing, click the link below.

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