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Wage gap, child care contribute to poverty among local women

Decatur Daily - 2/5/2021

Feb. 5—A large wage gap between men and women in the Morgan County area, combined with the pressures of child care and ingrained career stereotypes, contribute to a female poverty rate that exceeds the state rate.

While nationally women earn about 82% as much as men, women in the Morgan County area earn only about 72% as much as men, according to The Women's Fund of Greater Birmingham.

"Closing the wage gap is critical not just for the well-being of women and their families who depend on their earnings, but for the state and our economy as a whole," said Melanie Bridgeforth, chief executive officer of The Women's Fund of Greater Birmingham. "Alabama's wage gap adds up to over $13.3 billion a year — money that could be invested back into the economy."

Data from the "Status of Women in Alabama," a 2020 report from The Women's Fund of Greater Birmingham, defines the Morgan County area as including both Morgan and Lawrence counties. The report's wage gap data, which is from 2018, includes only full-time, year-round employees.

Alabama as a whole has a slightly narrower wage gap than the Morgan County area, according to the Status of Women report.

"The wage gap for women in Alabama is larger than for women in the United States overall: Women in Alabama earn only 73 cents for every dollar a man earns, while women in the U.S. earn 82 cents for every dollar a man earns. If the current trend continues, Alabama women will not reach pay equity until 2089," the report said.

In the Madison County area, which includes parts of Madison, Limestone and Marshall counties, the wage gap is slightly narrower than it is statewide, with women earning 73.5% as much as men.

The median annual income for women working full time in the Morgan County area is $32,000 compared to $39,000 for Madison County area women. The state average is $35,003.

Bridgeforth said for Black and Latina women, the pay disparity is even wider, with Black women earning 58 cents and Latina women earning 48 cents for every dollar a man earns in Alabama.

The leading industry that employs women in the Morgan County area is the service industry, which Bridgeforth said typically pays less than manufacturing jobs where men make up a greater share of employees. However, the wage gap persists even when accounting for differences in industry.

"Less than half of the gender wage gap can be explained by number of years in the labor market, differences in education and training, and chosen field of work," Bridgeforth said.

Child care

Pamela Bolding, co-director of the Neighborhood Christian Center in Decatur, said generational poverty, child care and self-esteem are all factors that may contribute to pay inequity and poverty for women.

According to the Status of Women report, 21.1% of women in the Morgan County area are in poverty, compared to 20.7% statewide.

"People look at poverty a lot of times like it's just a material thing, and we know that it's a lot more than that," Bolding said. "It's deeper, with self-esteem issues and being isolated and loneliness, and a lot of times there's health and mental health issues that come with it."

Bolding said for some women, these issues can create a sense of hopelessness that makes it hard to escape poverty, especially if they are paired with child care and transportation concerns.

"A lot of times that poverty comes from being a single mom and trying to make ends meet, to find a job that you get paid well enough with the benefits, and if the children are smaller and you have to put them in day care, we all know that day care is expensive," Bolding said.

Bolding said child care duties often fall on mothers, meaning they must find a job with flexibility so they can also take care of the kids, which then allows fathers to work longer hours in higher-paying jobs.

Like Bolding, Bridgeforth said child care is a major barrier to equity for women.

"We know that child care expectations are gendered. Women overwhelmingly assume caretaking responsibilities if other care falls through. Many women who want to work full time are forced to take jobs with more flexible part-time hours or drop out of the workforce entirely due to the high cost of child care," Bridgeforth said, adding that annual child care costs average between $4,000 and $6,000 in Alabama.

Another issue holding women back is a lack of confidence to pursue a higher-paying career, Bolding said.

"Sometimes it's just the mentality of 'that's the way it's been,' so women accept that, maybe, and don't push as hard for themselves to have the same position or same amount of pay for that position (as men), or don't even apply for jobs that would afford them that (higher) hourly wage," Bolding said.

Bolding said of those who use the Neighborhood Christian Center's utility, food and emergency assistance services, about 70% are women. Bolding said this may be in part due to the fact that men are more reluctant to seek help when in need, and that women with children may ask for help for their children's sake.

"We have a lot of single moms, and the dads are not involved in the kids' lives and so it's really left up to them. When you're thinking about, 'I've got to take care of my kid,' you'll go ask for help for that kid before you might do it for yourself," Bolding said. — Solutions

Bridgeforth said state pay-equity legislation has helped in the effort to narrow the wage gap.

"While the Alabama Legislature took an important step with the 2019 passage of the Clark-Figures Equal Pay Act, it should be noted that Alabama was one of only two states with no state law protecting women against wage disparity," she said.

Bridgeforth said the passage of the equal pay act was a step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done to ensure pay equity for women.

"We must continue working against the system prejudices that result in unequal pay for women who do the same work as men," she said.

Bridgeforth said post-secondary opportunities, such as those offered by Calhoun Community College, can help women advance in the workforce.

"Creating initiatives that support women in their efforts to advance employment pathways that provide more equitable wages are critical," she said. "In 2020, The Women's Fund combined private grant dollars with a public investment to scale our successful (two-generation) post-secondary pilot program beyond Greater Birmingham. We are so pleased that Calhoun Community College is part of the scaling of this initiative to provide wrap-around supports, like child care and transportation, to address unique barriers facing women."

Bolding said Decatur has a variety of organizations and resources available to those in need of assistance. She said the collaborative nature of local organizations means even if the Neighborhood Christian Center can't help someone with a specific issue or need, there's likely someone else who can.

"I think of one young lady that was in the jail, then she went to a transitional home here ... and then she ended up eventually getting a Habitat (for Humanity) house and a really great job, but that took like five different organizations working with her," Bolding said. or 256-340-2469. Twitter @ DD_CassieKuhn.


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