A recent state-by-state analysis from the National Women's Law Center demonstrates what last summer's Paycheck Fairness Act debacle seemed to imply: that the gender wage gap problem in the United States is far from resolved. The NWLC study, released April 2, reveals an unsettling disparity in the respective wages received by men and women. Although the pay gap varies greatly by state, the national average is 77.0 — meaning that women make about 77 cents for every dollar earned by their male counterparts.
The gender pay gap represents an issue of both equality and economic prudence. Women are now breadwinners in more than half of American families, and any systematic denial of equal pay would, as President Obama said in an April 8 press release, "shortchange families [and] slow our entire economy — weakening growth here at home and eroding American competitiveness abroad."
The disparity was by far the smallest in the District of Columbia, where women are paid roughly 90% of what men receive. D.C. consistently performs well on such assessments, in part because one of its largest employers — the federal government — is uniquely transparent with regard to employee compensation.
Most of the states with the slimmest pay gaps are located on the coasts. Among them are Vermont, Maryland, California, New York, and Florida. Interestingly, there was little correlation between gender wage equality and income. Many of the top-performing states were quite wealthy, like Maryland (where women earn 86% as much as men), but the nation's second-poorest state, Arkansas (82%), performed nearly as well. Wealth may not be a necessary precondition for gender wage equality, then: equal pay can also be successfully implemented even in less wealthy states. The ten states with the largest wage gaps are all heartland or Southern states and are amongst the poorest in the nation, particularly Mississippi, West Virginia, and Montana.
States with small gender wage gaps tend to also be the most liberal. Of the top ten, all but Arizona and Arkansas voted to elect President Obama in the last two elections, and only three have Republican governors (Florida, Arizona, and Nevada). Conversely, states with wide gender income disparities are the most conservative. Wyoming, the worst performing state (women earn about 67% of an equivalent male salary), is one of the most politically conservative states in the U.S. With the exception of Michigan, each state in the bottom ten voted to elect the Republican candidate in the last two elections, and only West Virginia and Montana have Democratic governors. Conservative think tanks often criticize studies like the NWLC's by attributing differences in wages to differences in lifestyle choice between the genders.
The wage gap widens further when examined by race: African-American women make, on average, 64% of what men do, and Hispanic women make 55.5%. Oddly, many of the states in the overall top ten have some of the worst gender pay gaps for minority women. In California, Hispanic women make less than half of what men do — 43.2%. The District of Columbia, which leads the nation in overall gender pay equality, has the third largest gender pay divide for both African-American and Hispanic women. Furthermore, the states that perform well on gender-racial analyses, like Vermont, Montana, and North Dakota, are frequently the least diverse.
It is clear from the NWLC analysis that even states with narrow overall pay gaps have areas in which they can and must improve wage equality.