Fifty years ago this August in Washington D.C., Martin Luther King Jr. led the nation’s largest political rally of its time advocating for the civil and economic rights of African-Americans. That same year in 1963 that Dr. King delivered his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, Americans put the Equal Pay Act on the books. At the time, women earned 59 cents for every dollar paid to men. But Black women were earning even less—36 cents for every dollar paid to a White man.
Today, almost 50 years after the Equal Pay Act became law, women are paid an average of 77 cents for every dollar paid to men. And while African-Americans are the only minority group in which women hold a greater share of jobs than men, Black women still make around 91 cents to every dollar made by Black men, and 68 cents to every dollar made by a White man.
Even worse, wage disparities pale in comparison to the wealth gap. Wealth—what you owe minus what you own—is a more comprehensive measure of financial security. Without savings (wealth) to fall back on, people are one paycheck away from a financial disaster.
According to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, in 2007 single Black men held $7,900 in median wealth, while single Black women had only $100! Debt is a huge factor in this disparity. As Black women outpace Black men in education, new research indicates that Black women are three times more likely than Black men to have education debt. And the legacy of the racial wealth gap means there’s less wealth available to Black families to use to pay for college. And as a result, Black families are more likely to have to borrow money.
We must rely on legislation to solve these economic disparities. Though the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, it hasn’t been appropriately enforced, and the wage gaps in gender and race have persisted.
However, some gains have been made. In 2009, President Obama passed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which enables victims of wage discrimination to hold their employers accountable. Additionally, the Minimum Wage Act and the Fair Pay Act of 2013 will provide African-American women a greater opportunity to build wealth and maintain assets while also decreasing poverty among African-American communities through increased wages.
President Obama has stated, “With passion and courage, women have taught us that when we band together to advocate for our highest ideals, we can advance our common well being and strengthen the fabric of our nation.” As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, we must not concentrate on where we have been, but what direction we’re going as a country, and how our efforts can bridge the gaps and disparities within gender and race.
Kristie Dalesandro contributed to this piece.