Giving a Voice to Mothers of Color

Conversations on Women’s Rights Must Include This Critical Group

Mothers of color face major challenges raising their families and need to be part of discussions on women’s rights, says Amy Navvab.

A single mother poses with her daugher in Sacramento, California. Mothers of color face many barriers to taking care of their families including poverty, lack of access to child care, and high incarcertation rates. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
A single mother poses with her daugher in Sacramento, California. Mothers of color face many barriers to taking care of their families including poverty, lack of access to child care, and high incarcertation rates. (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

When considering the issue of choice in conversations surrounding reproductive rights we must remember that the choice of motherhood is both a choice to have and not have children. While having the ability to prevent and end unwanted pregnancy is important, having the ability to parent with dignity and meet the basic needs of one’s children is equally important. For many mothers of color the ability to have and provide for a family is severely limited by poverty, the need to work, and incarceration.

But despite being disproportionally affected by these issues, mothers of color are often left out of conversations on women’s rights.

Furthermore, it is crucial to invest in the needs of mothers of color today so that we can better support youth of color; more than half of our nation’s children under 1-year-old are children of color, and by 2050 people of color are expected to be the majority.

We look at the key issues facing mothers of color below and explain why conservative attacks on programs such as HeadStart and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would make it even harder for these women to take care of their families.

Low-income mothers of color

Raising children on a limited income is difficult for all mothers. But unfortunately mothers of color are more likely to be low income. According to a recent CAP report, this past year 13.3 percent of black women and 11.4 percent of Latinas were unemployed compared to just 7.2 percent of white women.

Additionally, working black women were making significantly less than their white counterparts: $595 median weekly income compared to $703 respectively. Latina women earned only $518 a week. With such limited financial means it is no wonder that nearly one in four Latino women and one in five African American women worry about providing food for their families.

We need to do more to ensure that women of color can provide basic needs to their children. According to economists, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—formerly known as food stamps—is one of the most supportive programs for families and communities during economic downturns. Low-income mothers of color can rely on this program as a crucial line of support to extend their income. This past year nutrition assistance helped reduce the number of children living in extreme poverty by half.

Despite the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s benefits, the House of Representatives recently cut an amendment to the Farm Bill that would have provided $16.5 billion in funding to the program. Low-income mothers of color are at an increased risk of being food insecure and unable to provide food for their families with these cuts.

Working mothers of color

Additionally, mothers of color are more likely to be the breadwinners of their families. As of 2010, 53.3 percent of African American women and 40.1 percent of Latinas respectively were working wives. Considering women also tend to be the primary caregivers to their children, it is essential that child care is accessible so mothers of color stay employed. Unfortunately, women of color are less likely than white women to benefit from flexible work arrangements or access to affordable and accessible child care.

The good news is that many working mothers of color can rely on HeadStart—a federally funded child development program for children in low-income families—for quality child care In 2010, 31 percent of children enrolled in Head Start were African American and 34 percent were Hispanic.

But continued conservative attacks on HeadStart jeopardize the program as a support system to working mothers of color. The proposed budget from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) could prevent 200,000 children from enrolling. This will no doubt disproportionally hurt working mothers of color who already have few options to balance work and child care.

Incarcerated mothers of color

Incarcerated mothers face some of the most restrictive barriers to parenting. Despite an overall decline in crime, more and more women are being incarcerated, and women of color are being incarcerated at a much higher rate than white women. According to the Sentencing Project, in 2005 black women were three times more likely than white women to be in jail or prison and Hispanic women were 69 percent more likely.

When mothers enter the prison system, their children often stay with immediate family and in many cases are sent to foster care. For mothers who are sentenced for longer than 22 months, this essentially terminates their parental rights because states will end parental rights when a child has been living under foster care for 15 of the last 22 consecutive months.

Mothers who do not lose their children face many barriers to maintaining relationships with them. A majority of parents are incarcerated over 100 miles away from home, and one in three moms report never speaking to their kids while they are incarcerated. Additionally, the prison system prevents women from having a humane labor and delivery. The practice of shackling incarcerated pregnant women to their hospital bed during labor continues despite health risks and constitutional concerns.

Considering that two-thirds of female state prisoners are mothers, more must be done to protect prisoners’ rights to parent. And the treatment of mothers of color in the criminal justice system and its impact on children of color is continuously overlooked and must be considered to ensure the well-being of all women and their children.


Fighting for women of color’s parental rights ensures that poverty, worker’s rights, and prison reform are folded into the conversation surrounding women’s rights. We must continue to seek the voices of mothers of color to better address the myriad of issues facing women today.

Amy Navvab is an intern with the Progress 2050 project at the Center for American Progress.

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