Black Women: The Unfinished Agenda

We occupy many of the seats on the 5:30 P.M. Metrolink train from downtown Los Angeles to San Bernardino. We are behind the counters at the Department of Motor Vehicles and on both sides of the desks at the Department of Social Services. We push wheelchairs in parks and hospitals and hug children at day-care centers. Black women, who in 2006 constituted 7 percent of the working-age population, represented 14 percent of women workers and 53 percent of black workers, yet we are largely invisible in the policy discourse about both race and gender.

Like black men, black women live in neighborhoods far from employment opportunities and with low-performing schools. Like white women, black women experience occupational segregation, a gender wage gap and the challenge of balancing family and work. We are discriminated against because we are black. We are discriminated against because we are women. We are discriminated against because we are both.

This twin set of vulnerabilities has a big impact on black families and the black community at large because the wages of black women constitute a major component of black family income. Because of the limited economic prospects for black men, black women are likely to be both primary caregivers and primary breadwinners in our families. In nearly 44 percent of black families with children, a woman is the primary breadwinner. This includes both families headed by working single mothers and married-couple families in which the wife works and the husband does not. These female breadwinner families account for over 32 percent of aggregate black family income. In contrast, across all racial and ethnic groups, female breadwinner families represent only 24 percent of all families with children and account for 14 percent of aggregate family income. Hence, the gender wage gap and the lack of labor-market opportunities has a bigger impact on the economic well-being of black families than it does for other groups.

Despite a history of strong labor-force attachment and despite gains in educational attainment and occupational status, black women earn less than black men, white women, and white men. In 2005, for the same hours worked, we earned 85 cents for every dollar earned by a white woman, 87 cents for every dollar earned by a black man, and 63 cents for every dollar earned by a white man. In 2006, over 13 percent of black women workers were poor, compared with 5 percent of white women, 7.7 percent of black men, and 4.4 percent of white men. Our unemployment rate is nearly double that of white women and white men.

These statistics are especially depressing because slightly more than three decades ago, black women earned 96 cents for every dollar earned by a white woman. Between 1975 and 2000, the median earnings of white women grew by 32 percent while the median earnings of black women grew by only 22 percent. This recent experience contrasts sharply with the gains realized in the 1960s and 1970s when the income growth among black women outpaced that of other groups thanks to the improvements in black women's educational attainment and the elimination of the most blatant discriminatory barriers to employment and occupational mobility.


What interrupted this upward trajectory? Technological change and global competition increased the premium paid for skilled workers in the United States over the 1980s and 1990s and, although the proportion of black women with college degrees increased, a racial gap in educational attainment persists. In 2007, 19 percent of black women 25 and older had college diplomas compared with over 30 percent of white, non-Hispanic women.

Another factor contributing to a decrease in the black-white earnings ratio for women was the growth in labor-force participation of white women. This growth in white women's labor-force participation coupled with a weakening labor-force attachment of young black women and black single mothers eroded black women's work experience advantage. In 1972, the labor-force participation rate of white women was 42.7 percent, and for black women, 51.2 percent. By 2000, the black-white difference in labor-force participation rates had nearly evaporated: 60 percent of white women were in the labor force compared with 65 percent of black women. Among younger women, those aged 16 to 24, and among older women, those 45 and older, labor-force participation rates of white women exceeded those of black women in 2006.

Finally, equal employment opportunity (EEO) legislation and its enforcement contributed to the gains of the 1960s and 1970s, while the more recent retrenchment of those policies affected today's wider gaps. In the 1960s, EEO allowed black women with high school diplomas to leave domestic service for higher-paying jobs as secretaries, typists, and stenographers. College-educated women moved into managerial jobs, particularly in the public sector. Retrenchment in the 1980s helps explain the lack of upward mobility for black women in clerical work and their continued exclusion from high-paying, managerial positions in the private sector.

Although employer surveys show less reluctance to hire black women than black men, there is evidence of ongoing discrimination in employment. Young black women take a longer time to find their first jobs and experience more spells of unemployment than do young white women. In data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, over the 26 years observed, 29.5 percent of black women with high school diplomas but no college degree experienced 10 or more spells of unemployment compared with only 13.5 percent of white women with the same education.

Employment discrimination has long-term consequences. When a young woman finally gets her first job, she will have accumulated less work experience than her same-aged white counterpart and thus will have an earnings disadvantage that persists over her work life. In addition, discrimination causes stress, and stress contributes to obesity and poor health. Poor health limits labor-force participation especially as women age. Older black women would likely have higher participation rates than white women if they had better health.


If black women face a double whammy in the labor market, black single mothers face a triple whammy. Women with children are paid less than are women without children who are otherwise similarly qualified. This difference in pay may be explained by differences in characteristics that employers can observe but researchers can't -- such as tardiness, absenteeism, or get-up-and-go -- but it is also possible that employers perceive mothers as unreliable even if they are just as productive as other women.

Added to this disadvantage is the negative stereotype of black single mothers as "welfare queens." Just as the civil-rights movement opened new employment opportunities for black women, it also helped to end many discriminatory practices of states in their administration of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Before the 1960s, families headed by black single mothers, particularly in the South, were underrepresented among beneficiaries of the program, and, if they received benefits, they received ones less than comparable to what white families received. As the program came under direct federal control in the 1960s, the share of black families among welfare recipients grew, and the public image of the welfare recipient shifted from that of a noble white woman widowed and struggling with housework and child-rearing to that of an unwed black teenager who has babies to collect welfare because she is too lazy to work.

This stereotype was an inaccurate portrayal of the average welfare recipient. Most welfare recipients cycled on and off welfare into low-paying jobs and collected welfare because they were rarely employed long enough to qualify for unemployment insurance. The evidence that welfare induced black women to have babies outside of marriage was never stronger than a few weak correlations. Nevertheless, the image of the black welfare queen was powerful enough to lead to the dismantling of the federal welfare entitlement system, the imposition of work requirements, and a return to state control under the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (reauthorized in February 2006). The stereotype may have also influenced employer attitudes about young black single mothers. A business owner once told me that he would willingly hire an ex-convict but not an ex-welfare recipient because, he explained, "doing crime requires initiative."

Despite these stereotypes, many welfare recipients were initially able to move into low-wage employment. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program that replaced AFDC imposed work requirements on its beneficiaries, but tight labor markets, the expansion of Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), and the maintenance of work supports facilitated the pathway to employment. Black women have been slower to move off welfare than white women have been and are more likely to return.

Furthermore, African Americans were more likely to be denied benefits due to sanctions than due to earnings and represent a higher proportion of women who are "disconnected" from the welfare system (defined as low-income single mothers with no more than $2,000 in case earnings, no more than $1,000 in public assistance income, and no more than $1,000 in household Supplemental Security Income). A Brookings Institute study estimates that 29 percent of disconnected single mothers in 2005 were black or non-Hispanic. And though the 1996 legislation has moved many single mothers into jobs, poverty rates for single-mother families remain stubbornly high at 42.1 percent for white children and 49.4 percent for black children in families with a female householder, no husband present in 2007.

The centerpiece of the Bush administration's anti-poverty policy is the Healthy Marriage Initiative. This approach ignores a fundamental reality for black women. Marriage has not historically been the route out of poverty for black women that it has been for white women. The marriage initiative assumes that families headed by single black women are poor because the family head is unmarried. However, the relationship between poverty and single motherhood is not so simple. Single black mothers are not more likely to be poor because they are not married. They are likely to be not married because they, and their likely marriage partners, have poor economic prospects. For black women and black men, a good job may be a prerequisite for a good marriage.

An anti-poverty policy that has reduced poverty among black women is Social Security. Without Social Security, over half of black women over age 65 would have incomes below the poverty threshold. With Social Security, the percentage falls to 27 percent. However, Social Security is even more effective in reducing the poverty rate for white women. Without Social Security, the poverty rate for white women would be over 50 percent; with Social Security, it falls to under 10 percent.

Social Security is less effective in reducing the poverty rate of black women for two reasons. First, benefits received under Social Security are based either on one's own earnings or on the earnings of one's spouse. A black woman and white woman with the same earnings history may receive different monthly benefits because the black husband of the black woman earned less than the white husband of the white woman. Secondly, the decline in marriage rates among black women means that as they reach retirement, fewer will be eligible based on a spouse's earnings. In 2006, 55 percent of black women over 65 were entitled to benefits only as workers, 20 percent were dually entitled, and 25 percent entitled as a wife or widow of a worker. Among white women, 38 percent were entitled as workers only, 31 percent were dually entitled, and 31 percent were entitled as a wife or widow of a worker. Women entitled only as workers receive a lower average benefit because women historically earned less than men. In 2006, the average benefit for a black woman entitled as a worker only is $828 while the average monthly benefit for a black woman who is dually entitled is $919. This gap would be larger if the progressivity of the Social Security benefit did not mitigate the effects of racial and gender discrimination in the labor market. Hence, it is important to black women that this progressivity be maintained or even increased.


Neither of the presumptive nominees of the two major parties has indicated an interest in revisiting welfare reform. Neither candidate has proposed a specific plan for Social Security reform. Barack Obama has proposed initiatives to increase the take-home pay of workers and to expand work supports including increasing the federal minimum wage (over 949,000 black women earn a wage at or below the federal minimum), expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, and expanding and making refundable the child-care tax credit. John McCain proposes a sizable refundable tax credit for health insurance. While an expansion of refundable tax credits is likely to benefit families headed by black women, black women must be as concerned with candidates' expenditure plans as well as with their tax policies. Cutbacks in social services impact black women both as recipients of those services and also as providers. Black women are disproportionately employed in public administration and in the delivery of social services.

Black women confront many of the same issues as white women, as black men, and as working people in general, but these issues are compounded by the intersection of race and gender. In addition, black women suffer from not only the burden of their own employment obstacles but also from the lack of economic security among black men, and this third burden, which, as economist and college president Julianne Malveaux recently observed, is "why African American women cannot separate interests of race and issues of gender in analysis of political candidates, economic realities, or social and cultural realities." Black women may share policy agendas with black men and with white women, but it is important that the specific impacts of policies on black women not be ignored as we pursue common goals.