We Must Support Black Women's Fight for a Fair Living Wage

by Raisa Habersham

I sat in my favorite downtown Atlanta eatery reading the local weekly, Creative Loafing, looking to catch up on some current events. In it was a piece written by Quiana Shields arguing that the federal minimum wage needed to be raised from $7.25 to $15.

Shields writes: “I have worked in fast food for 20 years, since I was 16 years old. After five years working at the same Burger King, I still make $7.25 per hour. No one can survive on those wages.”

And she’s right.

According to The University of California-Davis’ Center for Poverty Research, a person earning $7.25 per hour makes roughly $15,000 annually. While in some states this may be more than enough for one person to live above the national poverty threshold (it was listed at nearly $12,000 in 2012), for someone with a family like Shields, it’s not nearly enough.

In Atlanta, the cost of living is less than one percent below that of the national average. And while it is No. 14 on Forbes’ list of best places for businesses and careers, it ranks No. 98 in job growth, leaving little opportunity for Shields, or possibly anyone, to grow in their field.

Shields’ isn’t alone in her circumstance, as African-American women comprise 16 percent of minimum wage earners among women, who make up the majority of minimum wage workers at 63 percent, according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

With 34 percent of black women being the sole breadwinner in their households, only making 64 cents to the dollar when compared with their white male counterparts, it’s impossible to survive on a measly $7.25 per hour (even if working two jobs, as Shields did). Shields, who has a family to provide for, has had to bring home food from work and sometimes walk to and from her job to provide for her family.

Looking beyond the basic necessities that a “minimum living wage” provides, it doesn’t allow for laborers to experience or enjoy much else in their lives. I’m not sure why it’s necessary for low-wage earning individuals to solely work and not enjoy the fruits of their labor.

It’s been proven vacation time reduces stress and improves productivity. However, the U.S. does not require employers to provide vacation time to its employees. Further, without adequate and proper rest and relaxation, it’s likely to lead to health issues that some black women can’t afford to take care of. Even worse, those born into harsh economic situations may already be vulnerable to stress-related illnesses.

Asking for proper compensation shouldn’t be met with insulting attacks on one’s education, skill level, or—in the case of black women—the callous disrespect toward their gender and race, but rather understanding for her and her family’s well-being.

Instead, black women are met with second class citizenship and treated as if they’re still hired help. This is unacceptable, and Black women deserve more.

An increase to $15 will allow Black women to properly provide for their families beyond providing food, clothing, and shelter. Higher income would mean better access to health care, improved transportation, and economic progress, thus ensuring better wellness and nourishment for families and increased productivity from workers.

As Shields mentions, the fight for an increase in minimum wage isn’t an issue that only affects low-wage earners. All of us should be committed to the Black woman’s fight for a living wage. By supporting the strikes and protests already started, you’re not only forging solidarity with Shields and those in her shoes, you’re taking a step to ensure the next generation of Black women can prosper.

Photo: Shutterstock

Raisa Habersham is a regular contributor to For Harriet.

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