The Persistence of Racial Inequality: The Earnings Gap Among Women from 1979-2016

PERI researcher Jeannette Wicks-Lim examines how racism has caused Black and White women to interact with the labor market in profoundly different ways.  This has led to a significant racial earnings gap that has persisted from 1979 to 2016.  In particular, Black married women have historically been much more active in the labor force than White married women. To account for this expression of White privilege, Wicks-Lim examines the earnings gap by household type. This approach reveals how a roughly 120 percent White earnings premium has persisted among single mothers, single women without children, and among married women without children.  

Abstract

This study identifies a significant racial earnings gap among women that has persisted, essentially unchanged, from 1979 to 2016, using annual earnings data from the Annual Social and Economic supplement of the Current Population Survey. Different from past studies, I integrate into this study’s method of analysis how racism has caused Black and White women to interact with the labor market in profoundly different ways. In particular, Black married women have historically been much more active in the labor force than White married women. To account for this expression of White privilege—distinctive in this period to married mothers in particular—I examine the earnings gap by household type. This approach reveals how a roughly 120 percent White earnings premium has persisted among single mothers, single women without children, and among married women without children from 1979 to 2016, basically unchanged. Married White mothers, on the other hand, dramatically increased their labor force activity over these years, so that their labor force participation rate nearly matches that of married Black mothers. By 2016, the White earnings premium among married mothers also reached 120 percent. I conclude that the degree to which the consequences of racism and White privilege show up in women’s access to earnings is large, and largely unchanged, since 1979.

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