This Labor Day, Black Mothers Deserve a Living Wage

As we enjoy our long holiday weekend, Christine Matthews worries about paying rent.

This Black mom from South Carolina just gave birth to her third child, a baby boy, on August 11. She’s still recovering from her C-section, but with only six weeks of unpaid maternity leave, she will soon be forced back to work.

Because this Labor Day, Christine—along with more than 20 million other workers in this country—is trapped in a low-paid job.

According to new research from the National Women’s Law Center, women are nearly two-thirds of the workforce in the 40 lowest-paying jobs in the United States. While women of every race are overrepresented in low-paid jobs—which include restaurant servers, housekeeping cleaners, cashiers, and child care workers—this disproportionate representation is especially stark for women of color. Black women’s share of the low-paid workforce, for example, is nearly 1.5 times larger than their share of the overall workforce.

And low-paid work inflicts the most suffering on Black mothers—who, like Christine, are often both the primary breadwinner and caregiver for their families.

Even when working full time, more than six in 10 Black mothers working in low-paid jobs (62.1%) had household incomes below twice the poverty line in 2021. For Black moms in low-paid jobs who work part time, that number gets close to eight in 10 (79.1%).

Christine didn’t need these statistics to tell her what she has always known.

The minimum wage in South Carolina has been $7.25 per hour since 2009, when the last federal increase took effect. Her entire life, Christine has only ever lived paycheck to paycheck. For five years, making $8.25 an hour at Harris Teeter, she was only taking home $120 a week.

During her breaks, Christine would walk to the nearby Starbucks for a free cup of water.

“And that water was my lunch.”

Because Christine’s work is part-time, she doesn’t have access to any benefits, a 401(k), or paid time off. And it never had to be this way.

Eight in 10 women in the 40 lowest-paying jobs have a high school diploma or a higher education level—including Christine.

In 2013, Christine became a licensed Registered Medical Assistant, and four days after graduating, was offered her dream full-time job—at $25 an hour. This career path would have given her children more options. It would have given Christine relief from the tightrope that so many mothers walk, struggling to afford food and rent.

So why, then, did Christine turn this job down?

It was impossible to find affordable child care for her daughter with autism: “When it comes to child care, the message to low-income moms in this country is: ‘You’re on your own.’”

Christine is just one of many mothers who want to work full time but are forced into part-time, low-paid work because of our country’s broken child care system—where the annual cost of child care exceeds the annual cost of in‑state tuition (yet child care workers are paid close to minimum wage).

As Congress returns from their summer recess, they need to immediately renew the child care funding that expires on September 30—and end the longest stretch in history without a minimum wage increase. They must also pass the Schedules That Work Act and the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act, so workers can have a say in their work schedules and access to more hours if they want them. And Congress must ensure that the basic supports people need—like paid leave, paid sick days, and affordable child care—are available to all workers, part- and full-time.

This Labor Day, as we celebrate the “American worker,” Christine is still underpaid and undervalued. Since late 2022, she’s worked as an administrative assistant at a construction company for $16 an hour. Though that’s the most Christine has ever been paid, her schedule is unpredictable. There are many weeks where her employer gives her only a few hours, or none at all.

Christine can barely afford diapers; without food stamps and rental assistance, she worries that her family would become homeless.

She’s also still thinking about “the job that got away.”

But Christine’s job didn’t simply get away—it was stolen. By our racist and sexist policies intent on keeping Black women down. By a country that shames Black women into thinking if they just worked hard enough, they could support their families and achieve the “American dream.”

As Christine’s story shows, hard work is simply not enough.