New report: Half of women of color in the U.S. paid less than $15 an hour 


March 25, 2022

Vikki Tully of Alkol, West Virginia has worked as a Head Start teacher for 26 years. She earns $12.70 an hour. 

Tully, 65, who shared her story with CNN, said low wages make it difficult for her Head Start program to fill vacancies. Teacher aides start at $10.10 an hour; bus drivers and cooks at $9.87 an hour. “We’re short-staffed at one of the centers because no one wants to work because of the pay,” she says. “They have tried and tried to hire people. We’re losing people to other jobs too.” 

Tully is one of nearly 52 million workers – or almost one-third of the work force – who earn less than $15 an hour, according to a new report released this week by the anti-poverty advocacy group Oxfam America. 

The report found that workers making less than $15 an hour are disproportionately Black or Latino, and are disproportionately women of color. Analyzing data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and Current Population Survey, Oxfam researchers documented a “staggering” race and gender gap in who earns low wages in the U.S.: 

  • 47 percent of Black workers make under $15 an hour, compared to 26 percent of White workers. 
  • 40 percent of women make less than $15 an hour, compared to 25 percent of men. 
  • And 50 percent of women of color make less than $15 an hour. 

“It’s been 13 years since Congress raised the wage floor in this country, and in that time all costs of living have steadily climbed,” report author Kaitlyn Henderson, Senior Research Advisor at Oxfam America, said in the report’s release. “It’s shameful that at a time when many U.S. companies are boasting record profits, some of the hardest working people in this country — especially people who keep our economy and society functioning — are struggling to get by and falling behind.” 

The current federal minimum wage, last raised in 2009, the first year of the Obama Administration, is $7.25. President Biden has proposed, and House Democrats have passed, a minimum wage of $15. Their efforts have been blocked in the Senate. 

The report includes interactive maps that clearly show the prevalence of below-$15/hour wages in states across the U.S., with separate maps to show sharp racial, gender, family status and age disparities. The differences across states are strong evidence that without increasing the minimum wage at the federal level, millions of people will continue to be left economically insecure. 

In a blog post, Henderson asserts that the minimum wage’s history is steeped in racism and inequality. The nation’s first minimum wage was created in 1938, when President Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act, a key part of the New Deal. The purpose of the law, Henderson writes – aside from raising the wages of many workers in the U.S. to a more sustainable level – was to allow people to have buying power, and help support small businesses, struggling for survival in the midst of the Great Depression. 

But many people were excluded from the new minimum wage, Henderson notes – farmworkers, domestic workers (who were overwhelmingly Black women), and restaurant workers. These exclusions happened because President Roosevelt needed the votes of White Southern Senators to pass his bill – and these senators’ primary interest was to keep Black workers disenfranchised, which meant, among other things, poor. 

Henderson writes that today, millions of Americans live in a state of “working poverty” — working, yes, but living in poverty and anxiety, a single lost paycheck away from despair. And now things are worse because of inflation. The Oxfam report estimates that with current inflation levels at a 40-year high, the value of the minimum wage has dropped by about 21 percent since it was last raised in 2009. 

The report reminds us that the appreciation shown to essential workers during the height of the pandemic was fleeting, or at least not accompanied by lasting wage increases. Nearly half (47 percent) of essential workers earn less than $15 per hour.   

Tully, the West Virginia Head Start worker, certainly has felt inflation. Because of the high price of gas, she and her husband will take fewer trips this summer to visit their grandchildren in Virginia Beach. And they’ve had to put off repairs and updates to their West Virginia home due to the increased cost of wood and building materials. 

Henderson asks: what would be a starting point for eradicating working poverty in the U.S.? 

“Raising the minimum wage for all workers to $15,” she answers. “Although Oxfam does not consider $15 to be a ‘living wage,’ the long fight at the state and federal level for a $15 minimum wage is a starting point toward achieving true living wages, and created the threshold for (our study’s) calculation of low-wage workers in the United States.” 

Henderson concludes: 

“There are 51.9 million workers in the U.S. earning less than $15 right now. This is not inevitable, nor is it fair. The time to act is now.”