LITTLE ROCK — Arkansas has the lowest percentage of college-educated women in the nation and the seventh highest percentage of women who live in poverty, according to a study released to state lawmakers Thursday.
Additionally, the study on the social and economic status of women in the state found that women in nearly one-fourth of Arkansas’ 75 counties are expected to die younger than the previous generation, and with the recent national spotlight on work place inequality, women in the state earn nearly $7,000 less than men.
The interim study, which took about 15 months to complete, was presented to the Senate and House committees on city, county and local affairs. It included more than 50 recommendations for lawmakers to consider when the Legislature convenes in January.
"The goal of this report is to present to you, particularly those you who will be back, some recommendations that we hope some of you will decide that there are things in here that we need to do," said Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, the term-limited chairman of the committee that developed the report.
According to the study, 19 percent of Arkansas women have college degrees, compared to 22 percent of the overall population; 20.2 percent of women here live in poverty, compared to 16.1 percent nationally; and the median income for full-time work in Arkansas is $30,752 for women, compared to $37,488 for men.
Among the report’s recommendations:
—Revising state contracting and purchasing policies to include women-owned businesses.
—Adding a school-based community health center in St. Francis County, a region of the state that includes low life expectancy rates for women, high infant mortality rates, a shortage of health providers and high Medicaid eligibility.
—Requiring businesses seeking state contracts to demonstrate their commitment to identifying and combating pay inequality and job segregation by sex.
—Encourage colleges and universities to offer more support systems for women participating in various academic programs and athletics, and to increase recruitment of women in male-dominated fields of study.
—Encourage state colleges and universities to increase their recruitment of women to top-level administrative and facility jobs.
Also recommended were changes to state laws dealing with human trafficking, including eliminating the requirement that proof of force, fraud or coercion be needed to convict a person of sex trafficking if the person is a minor.
Lawmakers attending the meeting seemed receptive to the report.
Rep. Johnnie Roebuck, D-Arkadelphia, said studies have shown a direct correlation between education and income, and as the number of college degrees in Arkansas increases, so will income.
"We will never have a higher per capita income until we increase the number of citizens living in our state with baccalaureate degrees or a certificate," she said, adding state also must work to reduce the high school dropout rate.
Rep. David Branscum, R-Harrison, said in an interview that he expects many of the study’s recommendations to be discussed during the upcoming legislative session, including the ones designed to mentor and support women in college, support athletic scholarships for women, and to change the law dealing with human trafficking.
"I thought it was fascinating to see the statistics," he said. "These are some things we need to look at."
Branscum also said that Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, and other lawmakers are studying the human trafficking laws and plan to propose improvements to them during the 2013 session.
Webb said the idea for the study began in 2010 when she heard about a national report by the Institute For Women’s Policy Research which had found Arkansas ranked last among the 50 states and the District Columbia in economic opportunity for women.
In the 2011 session, she proposed reviving the Arkansas Women’s Commission, but that proposal went no where because lawmakers had agreed among themselves not to create any more commissions or boards. She then filed an interim study asking that data be collected in Arkansas on the issues raised in the Institute For Women’s Policy Research.
A diverse group of more than 50 women from across the state, including several lawmakers, then met to look at the data, breaking it down into several categories, including health, education, human trafficking and economic status .
"Our charge was to study the issues in a data driven format," she said.