Angie Stackhouse worked as a pharmacist, a loan officer, as a volunteer at homeless organizations and mostly as an electrician in Maryland, making $12.50 an hour. She's worked since she was 14. When the recession took her career seven years ago, she knew she'd find another one. Except, the only work available paid minimum wage. At 47-years-old, in 2010, Stackhouse enrolled in school to reinvent herself.
"I'll definitely get a job," she recalls thinking, "because I'll have a degree." That was around the time President Obama boasted about the American labor market. "Employers today are looking for the most skilled, educated workers," the President had said around that time.
Stackhouse studied business management, and in 2014 crossed the stage at Catholic University of America. At 51, she updated her resume and went online, hopeful that an education would make the difference.
Around this time, Black women like Stackhouse in the U.S. had seen the smallest change in employment since the recession. They accounted for just 12 percent of the female workforce, but represented 42 percent of lost jobs among women, according to a recent report called Black Women in the United States, which highlights their disproportionate loss during the recovery.
Black women work minimum wage jobs more than any other demographic, the report notes.
So as the recovery took hold, the volatile nature of their positions became even more unstable as the mass of unemployed workers all competed for entry level jobs. In 2009, as the economy began to add jobs, Black women lost jobs. Two years later, in 2011, when most other demographics had seen significant declines in their unemployment rates, Black women's unemployment jumped to its highest, 14.8 percent.
"You look at what type of jobs were lost," says Melanie Campbell, who works with the Black Women's Roundtable, an organization focused on policy. "Public sector jobs were a big part of that. And you're looking at service jobs and jobs in healthcare. When it comes to recovery, those job aren't coming back anytime soon. So on a state level you have so many jobs being erased."
This was the market Stackhouse entered when she began her search. Before she enrolled in college, Stackhouse lost her Maryland apartment. With little savings, she had to move in with a relative in Southeast, Washington, D.C., the area where she'd grown up. Gentrification had finally marched across the Anacostia River, and now new residential complexes were crowding out Black residents who'd always lived there. This posed a problem for Stackhouse, as most of the jobs she wanted lay across or near that river, about an hour away on a bus and trains.
Stackhouse sent out ten resumes a day, she says. She applied for office jobs. She applied to non-profits. She applied for anything with a livable salary.
"It's not just finding a job, it's finding a job that will sustain you," she says.
When an employer called her back, she'd wear a black suit jacket with a skirt cut just below the knee. She worried the look was out of fashion, but at this point, not even able to pay her rent in full, she couldn't afford to replace it. She'd board the bus. Then the train. Sit for an interview. Inevitably, no one called her back.
She sent out more resumes, and lowered her salary expectations. She also stopped including her address on her resume (she'd heard employers frown on certain zip codes). "I didn't have any experience," she says of why no one would hire her.
This spring, the nation's total jobless rate fell to its lowest point in seven years, and women's overall unemployment fell to a six-year low. However, in that same time, Black women's unemployment rose to nine percent, a slight uptick.
More troubling is the fact that, compared to other groups, for Black women, education makes the least difference in earning potential. A Black woman with a high school degree earns less than a White man who dropped out of school in the 9th grade, according to the Black Women in the United States Report. It would take two Black women with bachelor's degrees to earn as much as one white man with an associate's degree. And even among college educated women, Black women earn the least. So while a degree can never hurt, it doesn't help Black women like it would anyone else.
Stackhouse's inability to find a job despite her new education is a sign of problems Black women face across the country, Campbell says. Campbell points to a recent article in Forbes that listed women of color as the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. It's great news, Campbell says, but she wonders if some women "are doing that out of necessity."
Last week, Stackhouse wandered the D.C. Home Expo and stopped at a booth. A woman asked if she wanted to buy a home. "No," Stackhouse told her, "but I need a job."
"What do you do?" the woman asked.
"Well," Stackhouse said, "for a while I was a loan officer."
The woman said she might know of work, although it would be heavily commission-based. Stackhouse wrote down her number. "It's not just finding a job, it's finding a job that will sustain you." --Angie Stackhouse
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
This article is part of our Next America: Higher Education project, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Lumina Foundation.