TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. ––  New research from the Tompkins County Workers’ Center in conjunction with the Cornell-Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) School shows that almost three-quarters of all Black workers over the age of 18 in Tompkins County County are paid less than a living wage, compared to a little over a quarter of their white counterparts.

Data from the United States Census compiled by ILR researchers shows that 74% of Black workers in the county make less than a living wage, compared to just over 28% of white workers who make under the county living wage.

The most recent living wage estimate for Tompkins is $15.37 an hour for an hourly employee with no employer-sponsored health care plan, based on Alternatives Federal Credit Union’s biennial Living Wage Study factoring in the costs of housing, food, transportation, internet and mobile phone, healthcare, and other necessities, as well as a modest allowance for recreation and savings.

“Our research confirms that Black workers are concentrated in lower-paying jobs,” said Russell Weaver, Director of Research, Cornell-ILR Buffalo Co-Lab. “This data makes clear how racism permeates our society, exacerbates inequality, and holds back progress for Black men, women and their families.”

Pete Meyers of the Tompkins County Workers’ Center gave one possible explanation for the pay disparity amongst races.

“Many essential workers are people of color. Caregivers –– senior care and child care –– are disproportionately people of color, and those jobs tend to not pay above minimum wage,” Meyers said.

Ian Greer, the director of the ILR Ithaca Co-Lab, said that the wage disparity could be an adverse effect of low mobility amongst people of color in the Tompkins job market, and availability of low wage jobs with high turnover.

“In places where the labor market is not as hot, these things that would lead to high unemployment or exclusion from the workforce lead instead to low wages,” Greer said.

Meyers, who has continuously fought for the minimum wage to be raised to a living wage and who founded the Workers’ Center as a living wage advocacy organization also said that “making the minimum wage a living wage is the single most significant thing we can do locally and across the State to improve lives and reduce the racist wage and earning gaps between whites and Blacks.”

Outside of the fact that black workers are making less on average than white workers, a press release from the ILR school and the Workers’ Center also points out that systemic racism in the American workforce goes beyond wages.

“These figures cover only workers, those in the labor force at any time. But in recent years we know that the lack of living-wage jobs have pushed an increasing number of men out of the labor force, as has the large number who are incarcerated. And we know from national data that these trends disproportionately affect Blacks, so the gap between what Blacks and whites earn is even worse than just looking at wage data alone,” their press release states. “Paycheck racism in Tompkins County, as bad as it is, is only the tip of the problem.”

This research comes on the heels of nationwide protests calling attention to systematic racism over the past month.

“At a time when ‘Black Lives Matter’ has become an opportunity for mostly performative and symbolic gestures of support in many communities, these numbers show the urgent need for substantive programs of redistribution to address entrenched disparities of race and class. Black life cannot truly ‘matter’ as long as Black workers and other vulnerable people of color are disproportionately trapped in economic insecurity,” said Russell Rickford of Black Lives Matter Ithaca and Associate Professor of History at Cornell University.

Anna Lamb

Anna Lamb is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at alamb@ithacavoice.com