Poverty decreased, but it’s not time to celebrate
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Sometimes, good news is good-news-but.

Earlier this week, economists and opinion makers popped the bubbly over a U.S. Census Bureau report that included more good economic news than we’ve become accustomed to.

The report said that America’s median household income increased by 5.2 percent last year, and that the official poverty rate decreased by 1.2 percentage points, to 13.5 percent. That means that in 2015, 43.1 million people – 3.5 million less than in 2014 – were living in poverty.

The report also said that the gender pay gap is officially, nationwide, 80 cents on the dollar. (Your results may vary, depending on your zip code. The National Partnership for Women and Families says that the gender pay gap in Connecticut is 83 cents, while in Mississippi, it’s 77 cents.)

But not everyone is celebrating. The opinion makers at the Wall Street Journal, called the gains “weak in historical context.” There are still more people living in poverty than during pre-Recession days.

For women of color, the news is not so good. In fact, it’s abysmal. Still. That’s particularly true for one group that’s historically been tragically overlooked.

The Census Bureau’s economic news was released within a few hours of the day Native American women were marking Equal Pay Day. According to the American Association of University Women, American Indian and Alaska Native women are paid just 58 cents for every dollar white men are paid. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander women make just 60 cents for every dollar.

That means Native women must work until mid-September to make the same amount of money white men made by the end of last year. That’s nine extra months.

The news gets worse. According to a report released this month by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, between 2004 and 2014, Native American women’s income declined by more than America’s median household income increased last year – 5.8 percent. According to the report, the salaries of African American and Hispanic/Latina women also declined (by 5 percent and 4.1 percent, respectively), while white women saw a decrease of .3 percent.

This chipping away at Native women’s spending power didn’t just happen, and fixing it will involve both a change in policy, and a rededication to already-existing laws.

Namely, we can:

  • Raise the minimum wage. Women of color are heavily represented in low-wage jobs. In fact, in the 10 largest low-wage occupations – such as childcare and food preparation -- the presence of Native women is 2.4 times larger than their share of the rest of the workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And while we’re at it, we can smooth the way for Natives to the upper reaches of business.
  • Enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, enforce already-existing labor laws. Enough said.
  • Make healthcare more accessible. Although multiple treaties ensure that healthcare be made available to Natives, the nation’s Native population suffers from higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and substance abuse issues, and the life expectancy is roughly six years less than for any other race or ethnic group in the U.S., according to the National Congress of American Indians.
  • Make college more accessible. Also according to the National Congress, while Native women are attending college in increasing numbers, one recent stat says that just 41 percent of American Indian/Alaska Native female students who’d started college in 2004 had graduated.
  • So by all means, let’s celebrate the new numbers, but let’s only take a little sip and remember: Not everyone is raising a glass.

Campbell is a journalist, author and distinguished lecturer in journalism at the University of New Haven. She is the author of Dating Jesus: Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl and the upcoming Searching for The American Dream in Frog Hollow. Her work has appeared in the Hartford Courant, Connecticut Magazine, The New Haven Register and The Guardian. Follow her @campbellsl


 

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