Minimum Wage Does Not Equal a Living Wage

By Altheria Gaston

CNN Money recently featured the story of Safiyyah Cotton to shed light on the economic strain experienced by individuals who work low-wage jobs and the resulting burden on the federal government. Safiyyah is a 22-year-old single mother of a one-year-old son living in Philadelphia. She is employed part-time at McDonald’s, earning an hourly wage of $7.50. Her son’s father is incarcerated. In order to support herself and her son, she receives government assistance in the form of a housing supplement, food stamps, medical assistance, and child care assistance. Working an average of 20 hours a week, her annual salary is $6,240. The 2014 poverty threshold for a single parent and one child is $16,317, more than twice what she earns by working.

Safiyyah is among millions of U.S. citizens categorized as the working poor, those who are employed in part-time, low-wage labor. In her city, a living wage for a single parent with one child is $23.39 an hour. According to the Living Wage Action Coalition, a living wage “affords the earner and her or his family the most basic costs of living without need for government support or poverty programs. With a living wage, an individual can take pride in her work and enjoy the decency of a life beyond poverty, beyond an endless cycle of working and sleeping, beyond the ditch of poverty wages.” Not only does a living wage reduce the duress faced by working class families, it also frees them from the restrictions of and obligations to costly bureaucratic government systems. Even with the proposed minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour by 2016, in many urban areas across the U.S., the minimum wage is far below a living wage.

Far too many Black women suffer from unemployment and underemployment, resulting in continual financial instability at best and poverty at worst. In Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America, Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden apprise, “Black women are disproportionately in low-paying, menial, part-time jobs that offer few or no benefits, and their income is significantly less than that of White men and women and that of Black women.” Black women are what Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant call “an exploitable source of labor.”

A report by the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau (2014), “The economic status of women of color: A snapshot,” highlights dismal economic disparities among Black women and our white counterparts:
  • In 2011, nearly one-half (45%) of Black families and 25% of Hispanic families were maintained by women heads of household. Twelve percent of Asian families and 16% of white families were maintained by women.
  • Among mothers with children under the age of 18, Black women were more likely to be in the labor force than white, Asian, or Hispanic women.
  • While 47% of Asian women and 43% of white women were employed in the higher-paying occupational grouping of management, professional, and related jobs, only 34% of Black women and 26% of Hispanic women were so employed.
Those who push to eliminate the gender wage gap, mainly white feminists, neglect to factor in race as a component in this gap. While white women argue that women only earn about 78 cents to a man’s dollar, Black women make even less, only 64 cents to a man’s dollar.

These statistics reflect a reality that many of us know to be true. Although Black women as a single demographic group represent a group of heterogeneous women, we, as a whole, are often uniquely disenfranchised because of our race and their gender in a society that has historically privileged whiteness and maleness. In a recent special edition of The Review of Black Political Economy devoted to Black women and work, Michelle Holder claims, “While black women have made significant advances in the American labor market over the past four decades there is still further to go.” These thoughts were recently echoed by President Obama during his Congressional Black Caucus speech when he acknowledged the economic plight of Black women.

As viewers are allowed this six-minute glimpse into Safiyyah’s life, we don’t see a welfare queen living opulently at the government’s expense. We don’t see a woman watching television or surfing the Internet all day. In fact, there is no television. There is no computer. What we do see is an employee who goes to work but is sometimes sent back home when business is slow. We see a young lady who suffers with tooth pain because she cannot afford needed dental work. We see a mother who dreams of a better future for her son. Safiyyah’s son is among the 38.3% of Black children who live below the poverty line, the highest percentage of any ethnic group. Most of these children are being raised by unemployed and underemployed single mothers. These mothers like Safiyyah have a responsibility to put forth an effort to improve their lives, but the “hard work is the way out of poverty” myth detracts our attention away from systemic inequities that lead to gender and racial discrimination.


Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet. She is a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation examining the lives of Black single mothers who use government assistance. If you are interested in knowing more about her project, join her Facebook community page, Beyond the Myths and Stereotypes: Black Women and Poverty. You can also find her on Twitter @altheriagaston.

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