I have vivid memories from when I was 3 years old of walking to work with my mom, who was a maid at one of the state agencies in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. I was very familiar with the houses along the route and got to know many of the elder neighbors who would greet us from their front porches while drinking coffee.
They knew me by name and would often give me a treat. In my mind, it was the best field trip ever.
After we arrived at her job, my mother would take me to her maid closet so her coworker could take care of me while my mom prepared her cart to clean the offices and bathrooms. Later, she would return so that her coworker could fulfill her job duties.
When I wasn’t at work with my mom, I would often accompany my aunt to work, who was a maid at the local Marriott Hotel. I sat in the hotel room watching her change the bed linens and clean the bathroom.
These were my childcare arrangements during my early years in the 1970s. My mom was a low-wage worker, making ends meet on less than $3.00 an hour. She couldn’t afford childcare, healthcare benefits for herself or for me, nor did she have access to adequate transportation.
We lived in subsidized housing with my grandmother and two aunts, using the support of public benefits. Mom was, and still is, a hard worker with a strong work ethic; she wanted to make a better life for me and my siblings.
This is my story, but it’s not unique to me and my family. Forty years later this is still the reality for many low-income women and women of color who are working towards economic security.
Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, with women and children disproportionately harmed by poverty. Mississippi remains the state ranked worst in child wellbeing by Kids Count, and 48th out of 50 for women’s economic wellbeing, according to a 2015 Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) study.
The indicators used to make these rankings reveal deep racial disparities.
The Mississippi child poverty rate is 15 percent for white children and 47 percent for black children. Women’s overall poverty rate in Mississippi is 26.9 percent, with a 41 percent poverty rate for black women.
This is the highest in the nation, according to a recent report by the IWPR. These indicators also reveal deep gender disparities.
Women make less than men in Mississippi in every profession and at every income and education level. Though women make up half of the state’s workforce, women comprise 80 percent of the state’s minimum-wage workers.
U.S. families headed by single mothers suffer the worst poverty rates. The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that families need an income of about twice the federal poverty threshold to meet their most basic needs. In Mississippi, 62 percent of young children live in families that fall below this threshold, and 66 percent of these children live in families headed by a single parent.
Sixty-four percent of single moms work, but their efforts to support themselves and their children are hampered by the gender discrimination they experience in the workforce.
In Mississippi, the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which is lower than the federal poverty level for a family of two, at $7.41 per hour.
Unfortunately, the low-wage jobs where women are disproportionately clustered fail to achieve family economic security. These jobs rarely provide paid family leave, health insurance and retirement benefits. Nor do they allow flexibility to manage child care or family issues.
As we look across the country at studies and data sets, this trend is most persistent in the South, where poverty is particularly high among women of color.
The recent IWPR report, “Status of Women in the South,” shows that women’s employment status and earnings have significant implications for the economic wellbeing and security of their families, particularly related to women of color.
Grading on a scale of A to F, Mississippi was given a D- as the state fails in the areas of poverty and opportunity, and also in women’s health and well-being. Poverty harms the women and their families as well as diminishes the economic health of the entire state.
When I was growing up, my mom worked across the street from the state Capitol. As a little girl I admired the grandiose, stately structure. It was there that lawmakers had the power to make policy decisions that aimed to reverse poverty for women and children.
Many years later, as the director of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, our organization worked to introduce a women’s economic security policy agenda during this legislative session.
The campaign, Making Mississippi Women Secure, was designed to connect and recruit diverse women from across the state. We built a statewide network through local town halls and a statewide summit of over 500 women who informed and crafted a women’s economic security policy agenda.
Mississippi women legislators got behind our agenda, and in January 2016 introduced legislation before the state legislature. The legislation included measures to make childcare and healthcare more affordable, strengthen protections for women victims of domestic violence, increase women’s wages, and expand women’s access to financial aid and child care to support higher education.
In February, we held a lobby day. We placed small slices of key lime pie on every state senator’s and representative’s desk—174 in total. Women from those town halls showed to meet their legislators and told them our message: “Women need a bigger slice of the pie.”
It was not effective.
Most Mississippi legislators ignored us. Instead of creating pathways to opportunity, Mississippi legislators defunded programs that support our families and prioritized “religious freedom.”
The unintended consequences of not investing in women and defunding programs that support our families are policy decisions that impact all Mississippi families. And what happens in Mississippi matters because economic injustice can happen in any state—and Americans everywhere deserve better options.
The men and women of Mississippi and around the country can engage their legislators through community meetings, sending letters to the editor, social media and invitations to demand policies to help in Making Mississippi Women Secure.
This injustice is a hard reality for one state, but an economic truth for all women across America.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Corey Holms licensed under Creative Commons 2.0