As the leading woman presidential candidate campaigns against the backdrop of the twentieth anniversary of welfare reform, the legacy of Clinton’s early political career continues to resonate painfully for black women. They still participate in the US workforce at a rate higher than that of other women—59.2 percent, compared to 57 percent of women overall—but still earn just 67 cents for every dollar a white male earns, and only about 80 percent of what a white woman earns each week.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR), the gender wage gap for black women grew markedly from 2004 to 2014: “Black women’s real median annual earnings for full-time, year-round work declined by 5.0 percent—more than three times as much as women’s earnings overall.” Black men’s median earnings fell 6.9 percent over this period. White women’s earnings declined by just .3 percent.
The trend is especially bleak since the financial collapse. Black households overall experienced a major income decline with the recession as well as the subsequent years, according to Economic Policy Institute: “the weak labor market of the 2000–2007 business cycle, along with the Great Recession, have wiped out all improvements in median black income since 1994.”
Black women have long lagged behind white women in narrowing the income gap—white women closed the wage gap with men by some 22 cents per dollar since 1980, but black women closed the gap by just 9 cents. The undervaluing of black women’s labor costs them literally a double-penalty for their race and gender over the course of their lives: the average lifetime income differential amounts to about $877,480, nearly twice as much as the average wage gap faced by white women.
Some relatively poor states saw gains in black women’s earnings from 2004 to 2014: the three largest statewide improvements in black women’s median yearly earnings were in West Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi—with wage increases of about 8.5, 8.4 and 5.5 percent respectively. By contrast, Ohio, once a bulwark of middle-class blue-collar jobs, saw a 13 percent drop in black women’s incomes. Altogether, black women’s earnings declined in 13 states by 6 percent or more.
The pattern may reflect in part the role of public sector employment, which has historically channeled communities of color into economic security. In Arkansas, for example, state and local government employment rose by over 5 percent from 2008 to 2012, while the private sector shrunk by 4.7 percent. Mississippi’s public workforce expanded by 5.4 percent, while private sector employment dipped by 1.7 percent.