As state leaders grapple with workforce issues, young people fleeing the state, and ways for Mississippi to compete in the modern economy, they should remember the colloquial definition of insanity: continuing to do the same things while expecting different results.
One of those is the continuing, long-running failure of state lawmakers to address Mississippi’s high gender pay gap. Mississippi is now the only state in the nation without an equal pay law, after Alabama passed one in 2019. Quick tip: History shows that any time Mississippi is the only state doing something, or the last state to do something, that policy bears close scrutiny.
Recent studies show women make up 51.5% of the population in Mississippi and nearly half of its workforce. They are the primary breadwinners for a majority — 53.5% — of families in this state, which is the highest rate in the nation.
But women working full time in Mississippi earn 27% less than men, far greater than the 19% gap nationwide. That gap grows worse for Black and Latina women in Mississippi, who are paid just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
Women make up nearly 60% of those in Mississippi’s workforce living below the poverty line. The state has continually ranked worst or near-worst in most every ranking for working women.
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Lawmakers on the Senate Labor Committee heard these and other similar statistics and issues last week. Labor Chairman Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, is vowing to push again for equal pay legislation next year. The move is backed by the Mississippi Black Women’s Roundtable, Attorney General Lynn Fitch (the only female statewide elected leader in state government) and a bipartisan group of lawmakers that has been growing in recent years.
But it will likely again be (quietly) opposed by business interests and ultimately decided by a Legislature that is only about 16% female, and remains much whiter and more male than the state of Mississippi at large.
Over decades, legislative efforts to pass an equal pay law have been quietly snuffed out in committee, typically without a vote and typically without much public discussion by opponents.
But it would appear the efforts to pass an equal pay law have grown stronger in recent years.
In 2017, there was a bipartisan effort with then-Treasurer Fitch; Republican lawmakers including Reps. Becky Currie, Carolyn Crawford and then-Sen. Sally Doty; and Democrats, including then-House Minority Leader David Baria, Reps. Sonya Williams-Barnes, Alyce Clarke, Bryant Clark and then-Sen. Tammy Witherspoon. It failed, but garnered more attention and public debate than the issue had in recent years.
In 2018, with a strong bipartisan vote of 106-10, the House passed on to the Senate a bill (to prevent local governments from establishing minimum wages) that was amended to include an equal pay provision. Many Republicans who initially voted no changed their votes to yes for posterity — and likely because they would have to face their mothers, wives and daughters. But the Senate, led by then-Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, let the measure die in committee without a vote.
When pressed, opponents’ stated rationale has been that there are already federal equal pay laws, and that they don’t want to put undue regulations on businesses or cause a bunch of unwarranted lawsuits.
But the numbers for working women in Mississippi would indicate that A: The federal laws are not working, and B: Many wage lawsuits would be warranted here.
And then there’s C: Mississippi is not succeeding in matters of jobs and wage growth, economic development, population growth (it’s declining), reducing poverty … you name it.
Maybe 2022 will be the year Mississippi’s lawmakers join the rest of the country in opposing unequal pay for women, and realize that failing to do so is the definition of insanity.