Black Women: Supporting Their Families—With Few Resources

Despite increasing college attendance and labor-force participation, African American women still aren't getting the economic security of their white peers.

A woman sews American flags at a manufacturing facility in South Carolina.  (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

The importance of women’s economic health in the black community is hard to overstate. That’s in part because black women tend to shoulder a lot of their households’ financial burden. More than 80 percent of black mothers are the breadwinners (defined as sole earner or bringing in at least 40 percent of total earnings) in their household. That’s compared with 50 percent of white mothers. And three-quarters of the black women who hold breadwinner status are doing so alone.

That heavy reliance on the work of black women helps explain why black women work more than women of other racial groups and are earning higher levels of education than they have historically. But despite their efforts to push for racial and gender equality throughout history, black women still get a raw deal economically, more than just about any other group, according to findings from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

Between 2004 and 2014, median annual earnings for black women who worked full-time, year-round, declined to $34,000, lower than for most groups of men or women in the country. Unsurprisingly, that means that black women experience poverty at a higher rate than any other group, save Native American women. And more than one-third of black women land in the bottom rung of earnings, the report found, while only about 12 percent are part of the highest-earning group.

Many black women, 28 percent, are employed in the service sector, which tends to provide lower wages and few benefits such as paid sick days or adequate health care. This means that, while many black women have jobs that involve caring for the children and family members of others, they often can’t afford the same services for their own families, the report shows. And though black women have increased their participation in the job market—their labor-force participation rate of 62.2 percent is higher than the 57 percent of white women or 59 percent of Asian women who work, making them the only group to outperform men of their own race—their jobs aren’t secure. Black women were more likely than white women to be fired, and, in 2015, had one of the highest unemployment rates at 8.9 percent.

This is all in spite of the fact that black women have made significant strides in education and work that should help them overcome many of these economic hurdles. Beyond their high rates of labor-force participation, black women have also increased their educational attainment between 2004 and 2014. Around 22 percent of black women now earn a bachelor’s or higher, a 24 percent improvement from a decade ago—the second largest improvement of any group during the period. Around 33 percent of white women earn a bachelor’s degree or higher. But even when black women do get college degrees, they don’t earn as much as white women with a college degree. According to the study, the median earnings for a white woman with a bachelor’s or higher was $56,000. For Asian women, it was $57,000. For black women, it was just $50,000.

That means that even with black women making up a larger portion of the workforce than their white or Asian peers, and committing more time, effort, and money to education than they have in past decades, they often still lag behind when it comes to reaping the benefits of those achievements. And that has an outsized impact on black families, who rely more on the earnings of working women than do most other demographic groups.

These economic problems are compounded by social inequities: Black girls are more likely than their white counterparts to be disciplined within public schools and punished within educational institutions; they’re also more likely to be arrested or experience domestic violence. They are more likely to be afflicted with serious illnesses and less likely to have the health care coverage to treat themselves, the report finds. All of these factors can have disastrous impacts on black women’s ability to earn a living, and since they are so often their families’ top earner, on their families as well.

The report also suggests multiple ways to markedly improve the economic position of black women. The authors note, for instance, that union membership could increase black women’s earnings by more than 30 percent a week. They also suggest that policy changes that would generally improve wages, health coverage, and paid leave could particularly help black women. And increasing the representation of black women in politics and policy could help create a political system that actually addresses the problems that black women face.