The State (South Carolina), March 13, 2008: Study: Poverty rampant, especially for black women

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A new study on the economic status of South Carolina women shows one in seven lives in poverty, including almost a third of the state۪s black women.

The study from the Washington-based Institute for Women۪s Policy Research and Columbia College cites lagging education as a major cause of South Carolina women۪s disadvantage, and asserts “barriers to their economic equality remain embedded in the state۪s social and economic fabric.”

South Carolina ranks in the bottom 15 states for women۪s educational attainment, at 37th, the report states, with black women earning college degrees at half the rate of white women. While 25.5 percent of white women hold at least a four-year college degree, just 12.7 percent of black women have such a degree, the report states.

The proportion of women 25 and older with a college degree or more has almost doubled, to 26.5 percent in 2005 from 13.6 percent in 1980, and that in turn has raised women closer to men in earning potential.

But the picture remains grim.

“Despite gains in credentials, women continue to lag behind men in their earning power, and occupational segregation persists,” the report states.

The report by the Institute for Women۪s Policy Research recommends more financial aid and scholarships for women.

But Columbia College president Caroline Whitson believes that۪s a simplistic answer to a problem with far more basic roots. She said other studies have shown that fathers and other authority figures set low expectations for young women.

“One study showed that teachers thought girls talked too much in class, but video reviews of the classes showed boys talked twice as much as the girls,” Whitson said.

Such preconceptions cause girls and young women to lose confidence and set low expectations for themselves, and reduce their ability to be advocates for themselves, Whitson said.

“If these girls are getting pregnant and dropping out of high school, they sure won۪t be going to college,” Whitson said.

Henri Etta Baskins, regional director of regulatory and external affairs for AT&T in South Carolina, said educated, professional women should reach out to schools and ask if they can mentor young women. Older women can talk to them about social pressures and how to handle themselves in different environments.

“The schools are always reaching out for corporate help,” Baskins said. “Maybe we need to call up the schools. African-American women have a responsibility to educate other young women.”

The barriers for women extend from the bottom of the political-economic ladder to the top. South Carolina is 50th in the nation for women۪s political representation in state legislatures. The state۪s political leadership remains largely white and male, as elections to city and county councils, the Legislature and boards and commissions come and go with little progress toward adding women to their ranks.

Sheryl McAlister, director of Columbia College۪s Alliance for Women, said boosting political participation is one of the top goals for the alliance.

“As long as women are not at the table where decisions are made, they are going to continue to be left out,” Whitson said.

Whitson has sought to make Columbia College, a historically all-female institution, an agent for change in women۪s lives statewide.

In 2004, when Gov. Mark Sanford proposed shutting down the state Commission on Women, Whitson offered for the college to take over staffing, fundraising and policy work, if the governor would continue appointing the seven-member board. Now, she has asked the General Assembly to expand the board to 15 members, to “create more advocates,” she said.

Even in areas where there was improvement, the report states parity is a distant dream. When it comes to wages, women would require another 50 years to catch up with men at the rate of progress between 1995 and 2005.

For all women, wages amounted to just 73.1 percent of the wages of white men. For black women, the contrast is even more stark, with average earnings just 54.6 percent of those of white men.

“Such large gaps in earnings between women and white men underscore the ways in which gender and race intersect to disadvantage women in South Carolina, particularly African-American women,” the report states.

Obtaining health insurance is a greater challenge for black women than for women overall. Among white women, 82.9 percent had health insurance, compared with 78.4 percent of African-American women.

The study was based on 2005 data, the most recent available for comparison purposes.

Business writer Noelle Phillips contributed to this report. Reach Hammond at (803) 771-8474.

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