The Economic Status of Black Women in America

We have seen tremendous progress among African American women with respect to economic and educational gains during the last several decades - Black women have made strides in politics, entertainment, medicine, social sciences, and government. Yet, African American women continue to face significant barriers due to gender discrimination in the labor market leading to major income disparities and chronically high unemployment, coupled with few limited opportunities for asset building and wealth generation.

Twenty-five years ago, the renowned economist Julianne Malveaux and Margaret Simms edited a landmark book entitled “Slipping Through the Cracks: The Status of Black Women.” A pioneering statistical treatment focused on the unique needs of African American women.

In comparing the employment status of Black women 25 years ago when Slipping Through the Cracks was released to 21st century data, we see that progress has been slow and that little has changed. During the 1980s African American women continued to move up the education ladder, yet the proportion of black women in service occupations remained 25 to 45 percent higher than that for white women.

Similarly, today, African American women have continued to increase in educational attainment more rapidly than white women, yet the proportion of African American women in the service sector still hovers around 25 % compared to 15.4 % of White women. In addition, African American women are under-represented in management-level and professional positions and face significant barriers in the transition from low-wage jobs to professional occupations.

A compounded issue related to access to occupational segmentation, is that African American women continue to earn considerably less than White and Asian women, and are much more likely to live in poverty than either group.

Although black women have made tremendous strides in terms of educational attainment, entering careers with high income potential and homeownership, these gains have not necessarily translated to wealth or assets.

In fact, in the case of homeownership, black women were 256 percent more likely than white men to receive subprime loans. And upper-income black women were nearly five times more likely than white men to be saddled with high-cost mortgages.

A new study by the Insight Center for Economic Development finds 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.

The question is what keeps black women from accumulating wealth and assets? The answer is manifold.

First, there is a prevailing myth that income equals wealth. Income can help lay the foundation to build wealth and accumulate assets, but without access to savings and pension plans, prime financial institutions and wealth building information and resources, the likelihood that income will translate into measurable wealth is slim.

Second, low-income women and single mothers have it the hardest in terms of building wealth over time because much of their income is dedicated to basic necessities and child care.

Thirdly, institutional and structural barriers also exist that impede Black women’s ability to accumulate wealth. Historically, African Americans and people of color 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 blacks from owning property or prevented access to quality jobs, parallel laws prevented women from owning property or obtaining credit in their names.

Taken collectively, all of these factors and surely others have contributed to the lack of wealth and assets among black women.

So what can be done, and where do we go from here?

A critical next step is to celebrate the accomplishments of African American women while acknowledging that that there is still ample room for improvement.

The employment disparities and wealth gap are systemic and structural problems that took decades to create, so dismantling them will not happen overnight. As we enter this new decade, we can no longer allow black women to slip through the cracks.

It is imperative to support the enforcement of policies and legislation such the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. If properly, implemented they will begin to address the economic challenges African American women face. Addressing these economic challenges has implications not only for Black women’s futures, but black children and the African American community as a whole.