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WCC should be addressing the wage gap

When someone mentions “the wage gap,” a listener may assume that the phrase refers to earnings differences among men and women. While that’s certainly fertile ground for debate, the wage gap exists on many levels.

A recent Michigan State University study examined the wage gap among Black and White US workers from 1976-2017. It also compared the earnings of Black workers living in former Confederate states with those of Black workers living in non-Confederate states.

On a positive note, the earnings gap between Black workers living in former Confederate States and those in non-Confederate states shrank substantially. Unfortunately, this did not occur because the wages of Black workers in former Confederate states increased significantly. Rather, the wages of Black workers living outside of former Confederate states declined.

In part, the researchers attributed the expanding wage gap to the level of educational attainment among Black workers. While educational attainment increased for Black workers, it did not increase as much as it did for White workers. Black workers also disproportionately occupied low-wage jobs, forming what the researchers termed “occupational segregation.”

Educational attainment is a significant factor in overcoming occupational segregation and with it, poverty. So it’s concerning that WCC’s graduation data from 2017-18 shows that two-thirds of the credentials issued to Black students were short-term certificates. Nearly 71% of Black female students and 61% of Black male students earned short-term certificates.

Educational attainment is key to closing the wage gap

Educational attainment is the key to increased earnings. Less time spent in the classroom translates into more time spent in “occupational segregation.” This has real consequences for Black households in Washtenaw County.

Lower-wage workers have been more heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. First, lower-wage workers are more likely to lose their jobs, suffer from reduced hours and reduced pay. Second, lower-wage workers tend to work in jobs that must be performed in person.

This increases their likelihood of exposure to COVID-19 and its most severe consequences. Currently, Black Michigan residents account for twice as many cases of COVID-19 and three times as many deaths as the overall State population.

Poverty disproportionately affects Black households. “Getting into the workforce quickly” is a trope offered up by the WCC administration to justify routing students into certificate programs. Citing figures offered by the State of Michigan, WCC claims that 1-year certificate holders can earn as much as 2-year Associate Degree holders can.

I don’t dispute that claim, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In five years, the certificate-earner can expect to make on average 15% more that on Day 1. Associate degree holders can expect to earn nearly 20% more than their starting salaries. Bachelor’s degree holders make on average 38% more than they did when they first entered the workforce.

Occupational segregation increases the wage gap over time

For households on the edge of poverty, wage increases that average less than 3% per year barely exceed the rate of inflation. State of Michigan data show that certificate earners – even after 5 years on the job – do not earn a living wage in Washtenaw County if they support anyone else.

A certificate may allow one to enter the workforce. But it does little long-term good if it traps workers indefinitely in entry-level positions. To reduce poverty in Washtenaw County, we need to put students on a long-term path to better earnings. For many students, that means earning a two- or four-year degree.

WCC issues substantially more short-term certificates than any other Michigan community college. From this perspective, WCC should not be complicit in widening the wage gap. We should not simply wait to see how this plays out. The Michigan State University report shows exactly the results we can expect. We should actively direct minority students to degree programs that will secure their financial futures.

Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes , via Flickr