Much of the current narrative about the U.S. economy, be it from politicians, pundits, or the press, touts its overall strength and low unemployment numbers as indicators that the economy is working well as a whole and—by extension—for everyone. But the story is not as clear-cut as the headlines would suggest. Looking beyond the numbers, it becomes clear that the benefits of the current economy are spread unevenly among workers, particularly for black women.
While it is true that black women, along with other workers, have seen a decline in unemployment overall, black women continue to trail their white female and male co-workers in terms of wages and employment outcomes. Black women’s labor participation rate is higher than the rate for all other women, yet black women remain less likely than their white counterparts to occupy higher-level jobs that offer better benefits, greater mobility, and economic stability. This column examines how black women are faring in the current economy, with a particular focus on identifying existing disparities and gaps, such as those with white workers.
Too little attention has been paid to why these disparities persist and what solutions are needed to level the playing field for all. Policymakers eager to trumpet the current economy as a win for black women must do more than profess support for equal pay or reduced unemployment. They must demonstrate a deeper understanding of black women’s economic realities and prioritize policy solutions that target stubborn pay disparities, promote greater workplace equality, and improve the economic standing of black women overall.
Understanding the economic status of black women
In the aftermath of the Great Recession, the Obama administration propelled an economic recovery that has continued into the Trump administration, resulting in a steady decline in unemployment and an increase in job growth. However, it is critical to understand the details of how this recovery is working for different groups of workers.
For years, black women have had the highest labor force participation rates among women. In 2017, black women’s labor force participation rate was 60.3 percent, compared with roughly 56 percent for white women, Asian American women, and Latinas. But this higher labor force participation rate has not translated into higher earnings, particularly when compared with white workers. Black women earn less than their white female and male co-workers. Analyzing 2016 data from the American Community Survey, among full-time, year-round workers, black women earned 63 cents for every dollar earned by white male workers, while white women earned 77 cents.
Persistent disparities between black women and white women have remained unchanged or, in some cases, widened. For example, the median weekly earnings of white women have grown at a faster rate than those of black women: In 2007, white women’s median weekly earnings were 17 percent higher than the median weekly earnings of black women. Ten years later, in 2017, white women’s median weekly earnings were 21 percent higher than black women’s weekly earnings. Experts note that this trend extends back decades; in 1979, the wages of black women workers were approximately 95 percent of white women’s earnings.
Black women are also less likely than white women to work in higher-wage, professional jobs. Among full-time workers in 2017, 34 percent of white women workers held professional jobs, compared with 26 percent of black women workers. Conversely, black women are more than twice as likely as white women to work in the lowest-paying service sector jobs and are disproportionately represented in the low-wage workforce. In 2017, 23.2 percent of black women workers worked in service occupations, compared with just 11.6 percent of white women workers.
Many of these low-wage jobs are far less likely to provide benefits such as paid leave that help workers address caregiving or other responsibilities. Black women with family caregiving responsibilities are estimated to spend 41 percent of their annual income on expenses related to caregiving such as medical and travel expenses. In contrast, white caregivers—both male and female combined—spend approximately 14 percent of their annual income on caregiving expenses. Even when pursuing more education to gain better jobs, black women continue to earn less in those jobs than their white female counterparts. Further, an analysis by the Center for American Progress found that among prime-age workers—individuals who are 25 years old to 54 years old—black women with college degrees have seen their employment rates decline by 4.9 percentage points since 2000, compared to a 0.6 percentage point decline for their white counterparts. Compounding the inequity is the fact that black women incur higher amounts of student loan debt than all other students.
Because these experiences are often overlooked, the economy remains stubbornly precarious for too many black women. In 2016, black women were slightly more likely than white women to have worked with their current employer for less than one year—25 percent of black women workers, compared with 22.4 percent of white women workers. Even as unemployment rates have declined, black women consistently have the highest unemployment rates among all women. In 2017, the unemployment rate for black women was 6.9 percent, almost twice as high as the rate for white women. At the same time, black women are far more likely to be breadwinners for their families than are other women: More than 70 percent of black women are either the sole or primary breadwinners for their families, and another 14.7 percent are co-breadwinners in their families. This means that any economic losses black women experience have practical consequences not only for their own economic standing but also for the economic stability of their families.
Policies that promote black women’s equal pay and workplace equality to achieve greater economic stability
Collectively, the economic disparities facing black women reveal a stark reality: Too often, black women’s work is devalued and does not reap the same rewards afforded other workers. Remedying these disparities will require an intentional focus on the explainable and quantifiable factors that depress black women’s wages and overall economic security, such as differences in job experience and job tenure, as well as unexplained factors less easy to pinpoint and quantify, such as discrimination and race and gender bias. These intentional solutions include:
- Increasing enforcement resources devoted to proactively identifying and combating all forms of workplace discrimination, especially pay discrimination. Policies promoting greater pay transparency—such as posting salary ranges for job openings—can provide all workers with better information. Requiring employers to report pay data broken down by race, ethnicity, and gender can help pinpoint where pay differences are occurring most frequently. Further, targeting sectors where black women disproportionately work—such as the low-wage workforce, which research suggests has higher rates of pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment—may help reduce discriminatory practices.
- Prioritizing efforts to combat occupational segregation and move black women into better jobs. More work is needed to examine how race and gender biases intersect and perpetuate systemic practices such as glass ceiling barriers, which shut black women out of high-level job opportunities. Also essential are intentional strategies to promote equity in programs intended to improve access to higher-paying jobs—such as apprenticeships, where black women have been underrepresented—as well as strategies to improve conditions in occupations that are currently dominated by women of color. Policymakers should expand training in historically undervalued occupations while simultaneously raising pay standards and supporting workers’ voice on the job.
- Supporting ongoing research, training, and data analysis to provide greater learning about black women’s experiences and improve workplace culture. Too often, economic policies are adopted without adequate research into their potential impacts on black women. Such research is crucial to understanding black women’s challenges and identifying responsive policy solutions. The information yielded by targeted research would also help employers root out discriminatory practices and improve internal processes to combat implicit biases that can infect workplace cultures.
Policymakers must do more than simply tout the current economic numbers. They must understand that even as the economy has improved, existing disparities have kept black women at a perpetual disadvantage. That being the reality, policymakers must put forward an agenda that centers black women and promotes economic equality for all. Black women deserve an economy that works for them—one that pays them fairly, is responsive to the economic problems they face, and enables them not only to sustain their families but also to thrive.
Jocelyn Frye is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
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