Reflections on the Anniversary of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

It’s time to talk about one of Louisiana’s bottom-ranking statistics: the pay disparity between men and women. You may already know that, on average in the US, women make 79% of what men make, but in Louisiana it’s much worse than that. In 2014, the median earnings for women in Louisiana were $31,586, compared to men in Louisiana, who took home $48,382. That means that here, women actually earn 65% of what men make, putting us 51st out of all states plus the District of Columbia.

Here is why this persistent problem is so detrimental to the wellbeing of our state and its people and why gender pay parity would go a long way toward improving our state’s outcomes.

First, Louisiana ranks close to the bottom on the rate of poverty for female-headed families. In Louisiana, 47.6% of families with a female as head of the household lived in poverty. That’s nearly one in two families.

If this were looked at as just a statistic with no other implications, it may be easier to ignore. But there are far-reaching consequences of this high poverty rate among female-headed families, consequences which bear negatively on our state. So what does this statistic actually mean?

In most families, there are children. That means that nearly half of the children in Louisiana with female heads are growing up in poverty. And with poverty come all of its attendant circumstances: lower school performance, poorer health, higher rates of substance abuse, and greater exposure to crime. Additionally, it means these children are more likely to stay poor throughout their lives. When you stay poor, you cannot contribute to the economy, and you rely on government assistance for meeting your basic needs. Poverty hurts our state’s bottom line, and if businesses were paying their fair share, the state wouldn’t have to foot the bill. In fact, if the wage gap were eliminated in Louisiana, women could afford basic necessities – food, rent, and utilities, for example – on their own much more easily. And being able to buy goods and services is what keeps an economy running.

In a longitudinal view, then, you can see how the chasm between men and women’s earnings in Louisiana is actually hurting our state. Single-parent households are more likely to be headed by a woman in this country, and single parents have to work. If these mothers could be making the same amount as men do for the same work, imagine what kind of effect that would have on the child poverty rate in this state, which in Louisiana is 27.9% (49th in the U.S. out of 51).

I’ve heard the oft-cited defenses and explanations for the gender pay disparity: People say women “just choose” jobs that pay less, or they ask for raises less frequently. And some conservatives bemoan the prospect of forcing gender equality down the throats of business owners and CEOs.

Some of these factors, to be sure, contribute to the wage gap. But even when you run the numbers, controlling for variables such as occupation, experience, and education, over 40 percent of the pay gap remains unexplained. Even worse, another study found that mothers were recommended for lower starting salaries, viewed as less competent, and less likely to be hired. Although we can and should question the wisdom of a society that pays traditionally female “pink collar” jobs less in general, the simple fact remains that women in other sectors of employment are still discriminated against and paid less.

Conservatives in Louisiana have defeated similar bills in the legislature, citing the devastating effect it could have on our economy and the fact that federal laws already protect women from pay discrimination. Of course, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry—which, we should recall, gave a ringing endorsement of David Vitter for governor—argues that it would hurt Louisiana businesses by opening the doors to more lawsuits.

The fact remains, however, that pay discrimination is already illegal in every state, under federal law. So we must ask ourselves, if LABI and other conservatives are opposed to a law giving women the ability to sue businesses more, would it not be denying them the justice they deserve?

Nearly every other state in the union has law prohibiting sex-based pay discrimination in the private sector, and these laws provide for a cause of action (lawsuit) or employer liabilities when the law is broken. Out of the other states that lack such a law, it seems like most of them are also near the bottom in pay equality. Utah, for example, is one spot above Louisiana, at 50th. Alabama is ranked 46th. It’s not the rule, but it’s a compelling correlation. 

Louisiana has seen sluggish population growth, even considering the losses incurred from Katrina. Anecdotally, I’ve heard people tell me they have moved because they can make a better living elsewhere. Certainly, if a struggling mother can relocate her family to a state where she is likely to get paid more for the same work, it’s not inconceivable that she would do the same.

If the economic and social costs of our pay gap are not compelling enough, I finally ask you to consider a moralistic perspective. As another columnist on this page has noted, even Pope Francis has decried the injustices of pay discrimination against women.

But I ask you to just think of the children of this state. If we fought pay discrimination harder on the state level, might a few frivolous lawsuits be filed? For the sake of argument, suppose that a few would. They wouldn’t likely get very far in court. Are we willing to deny working women – who are so often mothers – the ability to pay for food, medical care, education, clothing, and other necessities, all in the name of fighting the chimera of fraud? I, for one, think the children and families of this state deserve more than 65 cents on the dollar.