Spotlight Exclusives

Black Women Face Unique, Persistent Barriers to Economic Access

Spotlight Staff Spotlight Staff, posted on

While African American women are a growing part of the American workforce—and 70 percent of black mothers are the primary earners for their families—they continue to face daunting wage and opportunity gaps.

“We do live in a society where there is a severe racial wealth gap. And the people who often are least advantaged in that scheme are black women,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) at a panel discussion on the state of black women in the U.S. economy hosted Thursday by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI).

Ellison was joined by Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.); Nina Banks, associate professor of Economics at Bucknell University; Shiranthi Goonathilaka, membership and communications manager at the Association for Black Economic Power; Connie Raza, director of policy and research at Demos; and Valerie Wilson, director of the Program on Race, Ethnicity, and the Economy at EPI.

The panelists agreed that a clear racial disparity persists in the wage gap. Wilson pointed to an EPI study from last year that found that black women had to work “seven months into 2017 to be paid the same as white men in 2016.” In 2016, black women made 65 cents for every $1 earned by white men.

That pay gap looms large as African American women play an increasingly large role in the workforce. Wilson pointed out that black women are a crucial part of the economy, with their annual work hours increasing significantly between 1979 and 2015, especially among low-income African American women. She noted that “over two-thirds of all black mothers are single moms, making them the primary, if not sole, economic providers for their families.”

And as Rep. Coleman observed, working black women are also less likely than other workers to have access to paid leave and other benefits.

“African American women face unique barriers,” she said. “[We] tend to earn less money than our white female counterparts and lack access to the very policies that are needed to fulfill our responsibilities.”

Raza also pointed out that black women who have more education than their white counterparts still tend to get paid less and have limited access to equal employment opportunities.

The panelists offered three broad categories of action to expand economic opportunities for African American women:

  • Vigilance to ensure that policy at the federal, state and local levels is free from racial bias and promotes broadly shared economic stability;
  • Community-based solutions, such as consumer finance education and community groups, that aim to empower and unify black women seeking economic prosperity; and
  • Grassroots action and advocacy, via social movements, campaigns, and public calls for new, fairer policies.

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