Friday, December 22, 2006

Arkansas ranks at bottom for working women

From the Business section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Dec. 22, this depressing article:

"State ranked worst for working women: Arkansas drops from 46th in 2004 study"
By Laurie Whalen

Arkansas ranks as the worst state for prospects related to employment, earnings and economic policy for women, according to a study released this week by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

In its 2006 report “The Best and Worst State Economies for Women,’’ Arkansas ranked 51st behind Louisiana and West Virginia when evaluated on eight criteria such as earnings, the gender wage gap, business ownership and poverty. The study included the District of Columbia.

The Natural State dropped from 46th in the 2004 ranking and 47th in 2002.

In an e-mailed statement, Erica Williams, a co-author of the biennial study, said slight improvements made in some of the criteria weren’t enough to keep Arkansas from falling into last place.

A drop in women’s earnings and labor force participation, a widening in the gender earning gap and a decrease in health insurance coverage helped pull the state down in the overall ranking.

When prospects are improved, it’s “going to have a positive effect on the economy,’’ she said.

The Washington-based advocacy group focuses on issues including women’s civic and political participation. The nonprofit research institute is affiliated with George Washington University.

The institute’s rankings were based on two composite indexes made up from the eight criteria. An ideal score was then created.

Williams said results showing Southern states as lacking in economic prospects for women should not come as a surprise. Since the institute began tracking the economic status of women in 1996, the South has ranked lower in comparison with other regions.

“It’s good to repeat the message that we really can do better than this,’’ Williams said. “And there’s plenty of room to move up.”

The study released Wednesday positively noted that national wages had risen in all states in real dollars since 1989, and that many states are graduating equal numbers of men and women from four-year colleges.

But women continue to earn less than their male counterparts, with the institute reporting that “at the present rate of progress, it will take 50 years for women to achieve earnings parity with men nationwide.”

In terms of annual earnings, Arkansas and Montana ranked at the bottom with their median, full-time earnings of $24,800 per year. Other low-ranking states included Mississippi, New Mexico and Wyoming.

The report said $31,800 was the typical nationwide median salary for women.

The District of Columbia had the highest median salary at $42,400. Other top-ranking states included Maryland, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Gains in women’s wages were attributed in part to labor market experience and formal education.

But Arkansas ranked at the bottom with the percentage of women with bachelor’s degrees. The state bested only West Virginia in having the lowest percentage of its female population with four-year degrees.

Higher-education degrees were attained by 17.6 percent of Arkansas women age 25 years and older, compared with 15.2 percent of the female population in West Virginia.

Connecticut, Massachusetts and Vermont ranked among the top states with more than 30 percent of their female population having attained a bachelor’s degree. Nationally, the average dropped to about 26.5 percent of the female population, according to the study.

Mike Leach, a public policy program director at the Southern Good Faith Fund’s Little Rock office, said making education affordable to low-income residents in Arkansas remains a challenge.

The Southern Good Faith Fund is a Pine Bluff-based organization advocating policy change on behalf of poor constituents in the Mississippi River’s delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi.

And, he added, not having the means to afford college is the main barrier in attaining a college degree.

Leach said financial aid for need-based students is only matched 70 cents to the dollar in Arkansas compared with other states that more than double the amount.

“In our view, the state is probably not making as big of an investment in creating access for all Arkansans as it could,’’ said Leach.

The institute’s report includes several recommendations, such as investing more in education at all levels, increasing the mandatory amount of contracts for women-owned businesses and encouraging employers to regularly evaluate their pay policies.

“Policies and practices such as these can ensure that women have equal opportunity with men to participate in the economy,’’ the study said. “Only in this way can the full economic potential of the nation be realized.’’

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