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The Story of Black Women and the Economy in the U.S.

 

The war on poverty has been fought by Black women in the United States for centuries, beginning with their resistance to the wholesale exploitation of their physical and reproductive labor as enslaved people.  

 

At the start of the twentieth century, pervasive, overt racial and gender discrimination barred Black women from most jobs, denied them equal education, and disenfranchised them politically.  Issues of equal pay, exploitation and physical and sexual violence and harassment on the job during the Jim-Crow era, were common experiences for Black women who often were the sole provider in their households, employed mostly at the lowest pay as domestic workers. Institutional and structural barriers impeded Black women’s ability to accumulate wealth then, as it does today. Historically, African Americans were excluded from many of the policies that allowed whites to accumulate wealth and transfer wealth and assets from generation to generation. In addition to laws and policies that restricted Black people from owning property or prevented access to quality jobs, parallel laws prevented women from owning property or and prevented access to quality jobs.  

 

After mid-century, slowly and sometimes with violent opposition, the situation of African Americans as a whole changed as the courts and Congress—prodded by a massive social and civil rights movement, national embarrassment on the world stage during the cold war, and the electoral concerns of urban politicians—extended political and civil rights. However, for Black women, the road to economic parity remained arduous as war was declared on Black women’s agency with the release of the Moynihan report in 1965 which named the “Black matriarch” among contributing factors to Black poverty and the destruction of the Black family structure. The Moynihan report provided the fodder to reframe Black poverty and the lack of economic opportunity—conceptualizing poverty issues around the needs of the Black patriarch, or Black children living in poverty, and rarely the poor Black mothers raising these children.

 

However Black women still led affirmative action and new “welfare rights” campaigns and fought for the extension of social citizenship—guarantees of food, shelter, medical care, and education. By the late 1980 the government had effectively labeled Black women “welfare queens”, and a full fledged attack was launched against the poorest of Black women, those receiving welfare.  By the end of the century, Black immigrant women from the Caribbean and Africa had expanded the struggle for economic justice, and as Black immigrants, they also became casualties of the racist, historical economic structures and systems that sustained both the formal and informal barriers that had excluded Blacks and women from most institutions and from the most favorable labor market positions.

 

The Current Economic Impact on Women in Black Communities:

 

Last year, a ground-breaking study by the Insight Center for Economic Development—Lifting As We Climb revealed that single Black women have one penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by Black men and only a tiny fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by white women. Black single mothers with children under 18 have a median net wealth of zero compared to $7,970 of wealth held by white women with children. Among Black families, 68 percent of black women have no net financial savings and live from paycheck to paycheck. In Black communities, more women are working and the community tends to equate income with wealth as they measure economic well-being by what pay one brings home. Though income helps lay the foundation to build wealth and accumulate assets, the lack of savings and pension plans, especially for women, and without information and resources about building wealth, researchers warn there is little likelihood that income will translate into measurable wealth for these working Black women.

 

Moreover, women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups, the Black community included. In fact, the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world.  Recent data shows that 26.5 percent of African-American women are poor compared to 22.3 percent of African- American men; 23.6 percent of Hispanic women are poor compared to 19.6 percent of Hispanic men; and 11.6 percent of white women are poor compared to 9.4 percent of white men; and 10.7 percent of Asian women are poor compared to 9.7 percent of Asian men. The poverty rates for Black employed women is 12.7 percent, for Latina working women 12.1 percent, compared with 5.5 percent for White women and 4.9 percent for Asian women who were least likely than any other group to be poor.  Over a quarter of Black women are poor, and according to 2010 labor statistics, in 2009 Black women were over twice as likely as Asian women to be living in poverty.

 

The most recent data reveals that women earned 80 cents for every $1 earned by men. African American women earned 67 cents on that dollar.  Although the 2010 census reflects some progress for Black women in terms of gaps in earnings across race and gender, median weekly earnings for Black men working at full-time jobs were $629 per week in the fourth quarter of 2010, or 73.4 percent of the median for white men ($857). For Black women the median weekly earning was ($605); for Latinas ($ 510); for white women, it was ($695) and Asian women’s median income was ($719).  Occupational segregation is a major contributing factor to the gender disparities especially among those more likely to be poor, Black and Latina women.  These Women continue to disproportionately hold jobs with lower salaries and fewer benefits. In 2008, more than 50% of working women were clustered in only 4.9% of the low paying occupational categories. Training programs and educational institutions too often reinforce this trend, failing to provide these women and girls with the competitive skills needed for a path into non-traditional, well-compensated jobs.

 

Yet the fierce debate around economic justice is rarely focused on race and gender based challenges for Black women (and Latina) and rarely does it consider these women across their economic life-span. This problem has been exacerbated by the paucity of Black (and Latina) women of color in policy-informing faculty, in budget decisions, in research positions, in the larger advocacy and grassroots organizing.

 

There is no doubt that the best policy solutions to address women’s poverty has to combine a range of decent education, training and employment opportunities, but policy objectives must also recognize the multiple barriers to economic security women face based on their race, sex, and often their ethnicity, immigration status, sexuality and other personal/physical factors. Any social justice advocacy approach must not only explicitly underscore the needs of those who bear most of the poverty burden, Black (and Latina) women, but must place them at the decision making tables within communities and at the policy level in order to truly promote the equal social and economic status of all women and people of color.  Black Women’s Blueprint is a movement to place Black women's lives and their particular struggles squarely within the larger racial justice concerns of Black communities as a whole since 2008.  It is a movement to make gender explicit in broader economic justice organizing in Black communities so that all members of our communities gain social, political and economic equity. 

 

 

Black Women in White America: A Documentary History Edited by Gerda Lerner. Vintage Books, 1991

 

Too Heavy A Load: Black women in defense of themselves: 1894-1994 by Deborah Grey White . WW Norton & Co Ltd, 1999.

 

Black Women in White America: A Documentary History Edited by Gerda Lerner. Vintage Books, 1991

 

Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore. University of North Carolina Press,1996

 

The Negro Family: The Case for National Action- Office of Policy Planning and Research. United States Department of Labor-March 1965

 

The ‘Welfare Queen’ Experiment. How Viewers React to Images of African-American Mothers on Welfare, By Franklin D. Gilliam

 

http://www.insightcced.org/uploads/CRWG/LiftingAsWeClimb-WomenWealth-Report-InsightCenter-Spring2010.pdf

 

From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half

 

From Poverty to Prosperity: A National Strategy to Cut Poverty in Half

 

Women in the Labor Force:  A Databook- http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-intro-2010.pdf  (pg2)

 

Women in the Labor Force: A Databook- http://www.bls.gov/cps/wlf-intro-2010.pdf

 

Bureau of Labor Statistics (2008)

 

http://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/wkyeng_01202011.pdf

 

Wider Opportunities for Women, 2008 http://www.wowonline.org/documents/WomensWorkin2008_Report.pdf

 

Ending Invisibility-The Women of Color Policy Network http://wagner.nyu.edu/wocpn/our_work/Issues%20for%20women%20testimony

 

 

 

 

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