Many mainstream organizations and media outlets often explain the gender gap through the simple statistic that women make “78 cents to a man’s dollar.” This statement doesn’t actually offer us the entire picture, neglecting to mention that it is actually white women who earn .78 cents to a white man’s dollar. Earnings for men of color are lower than for white men and white women, while Black women earn, on average, .64 cents to a white man’s dollar, and Latina women earn only .54 cents to a white man’s dollar. The .78 cents statistic also erases the dozens of workers of all genders, and those who do not conform to gender norms, who are working minimum wage jobs where salary negotiation is almost non-existent. Studies have shown that women of color not only make less than white men and white women, but they are also more likely to hold hourly jobs and work fewer hours because of the nature of the work (often women of color are concentrated in the service industry).
While the federal minimum wage has been set at $7.25 since 2009, President Obama has encouraged an increase to $10.10 an hour. Yet, a 2012 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that the minimum wage should actually be $10.52 if it had kept up with inflation, and $21.72 if it had kept up with increases in worker productivity. Because the current minimum wage of $7.25 does not translate into a living wage for a majority of workers, many minimum and low wage-earning adults hold numerous jobs, are forced to seek public assistance, and some may use alternative—often criminalized—forms of earning income to cover the costs of living for themselves and their kin.
On August 6th, 2015, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to approve a “living wage” ordinance that will force certain companies* to offer $10.10 as the minimum wage to workers, though many were quick to point out that $10.10 is not a living wage in New Orleans. A Loyola University researcher found that a single parent in New Orleans would need approximately $22/hour in order to live a “reasonable life in New Orleans” while a two-parent household would require at least $13/hour per parent.
In New Orleans and beyond, many Americans are forced to survive on the minimum wage (or less) due to being trapped by a host of interlinked social and economic factors. While some claim minimum wage jobs like fast food work are supposed to be temporary positions for demographics such as high-school students, the reality is that roughly 52% of minimum wage workers in the United Stated are over the age of 25. Location, gender, race, and education levels are all also indicators of minimum wage employment in the United States. In cities like Chicago, over 40% of minimum wage workers are Black, though states in the the U.S South (primarily Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee) see the highest percentages of workers statewide earning the minimum wage. Of the 1.3 million workers making minimum wage and the 1.7 million workers who earned less than the minimum wage in 2014, 62% of them were women, showing the feminization of minimum wage work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Black people make up 20% of the fast food industry, despite being 12% of the population. In addition, nearly 40% of all Black women workers in the United States are employed in low-wage jobs, further illustrating the disproportionately gendered and racialized demographics of minimum wage work.
At Women With A Vision, we see first hand how low wages and economic insecurity impact women and their communities. Economic instability is often the precursor and/or an intricately-linked compounding factor to the many injustices that our clients face, especially when they find themselves at the intersection of race, gender/gender expression, sexual orientation, and class. Recently, the Fight For $15 chapter in New Orleans hosted a rally/march to City Hall that I attended and spoke at on behalf of Women With A Vision. As I looked out into the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice how, of those who identified as low wage/minimum wage workers, many were Black women. At the end of the rally, I happened to mention this to a Black women I did not know but who was in attendance. “Well, of course,” she said, “We [Black women] have always had to fight just to live.” I was struck by how nonchalantly she said it, but realized she was right. Neither the Fight For $15 or the struggle for a livable wage are about making extreme demands, but simply demanding the right for millions of Americans to work and live in dignity. This is a demand, as this woman reminded me, Black Americans have been fighting for for centuries.
At Women With a Vision, we see the fight for living wages as a Reproductive Justice issue. The term Reproductive Justice was coined by Black women and championed with women of color as a way to push the mainstream reproductive rights movement beyond a focus on abortion and birth control. Women of color pushed for the movement to encompass our right to health and safety not just during family planning and childbirth, but as we raise our children. Because of the ways oppression intersects along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other factors, these activists understood that not all women have equal choices about one’s body and family, and that a true movement for reproductive freedom had to include an analysis of the racial, economic, cultural, and structural constraints on women’s power.
We see this in the .78 cents statistic, which doesn’t underscore how women of color stand at the intersections of both racial, gender, and class oppressions, making our labor and our bodies worth less. Race, for instance, is implicitly tied to class in the United States, and at WWAV we are able to use the reproductive justice framework to explain how class, particularly poverty, shapes our client’s ability to choose when, how, where, and if they can parent.
For marginalized women and their families, true reproductive justice would mean access to a living wage, access to competent healthcare, freedom from state and interpersonal violence, a healthy living environment, affordable housing, good transportation, and a number of other issues that impact the daily lives of the women who walk into our offices. At WWAV, we believe reproductive justice exists when all individuals have the power, access, and resources to make healthy decisions about their bodies.
For so many of the women we work with at WWAV, low wages mean facing impossible choices between food for their families and clothes for their children; between keeping the light on and paying rent; between child care for their children while they are at work and healthcare when they are sick. The struggle to find a living wage job is a struggle for reproductive justice, and higher wages would allow marginalized women and their families a chance to live and thrive in New Orleans.
*This only applies to companies that: (1) Work under a city contract or contracts worth more than $25,000, and (2) Work for a company that got economic incentives or tax breaks worth more than $100,000 in a year.