The XX Factor

Black Women in America Really Do Work Harder for Less, New Report Shows

Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza in October in New York City. “Hard work isn’t paying off” for black women in America, she said Wednesday.

Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for The New Yorker

It’s a familiar adage that black Americans have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their white counterparts—and that black women, oppressed by the intersecting forces of sexism and racism, have to struggle even more. Now, a sweeping new report from the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research, funded by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, provides the data to back this up.

Released Wednesday, the report shows black women working more and getting less in return across all areas of American life. Black women voted at higher rates than any other group in 2008 and 2012 (and in 2014, more than any other group except white men and women)—but they remain drastically underrepresented in both state and national politics. The share of black women with a college degree has increased by almost 24 percent since the early 2000s, but they graduated with more debt and worse prospects than white students. And black women participate in the workforce at higher rates than other women, yet they’re among the most likely to live in poverty, second only to indigenous women.

In part, this is because black women have remained trapped in the worst-paying sectors of the economy—caretaking and service jobs—while white women have ascended to better-compensated professions. This is no coincidence, as Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and the special projects director at the NDWA, writes in the forward to the report. “Without Black women’s labor inside of white households, white women would not have been able to break (some) of the barriers of sexism that relegated the value of women’s contributions to the sphere of the home,” she writes. “The result is a racialized economy where Black women are losing ground.”

About 28 percent of employed black women work in the service sector, caring for children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, according to the report, which does not break out data about black immigrant women or transgender women. With stagnant wages and stingy protections, these jobs ministering to other people’s families make it hard for service workers to look after their own loved ones. More than a third of all working black women have no access to paid sick days. Many struggle to afford childcare: While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines 10 percent of a family’s income as the appropriate amount to spend on childcare, full-time infant care eats up at least 20 percent of the median salary paid to a black woman, and nearly 50 percent in expensive areas such as the District of Columbia.

In 2015, the median hourly wage for a childcare worker was calculated at $10.31 an hour; several years before, a national survey found a similar wage for non-live-in domestic workers. These female-dominated industries contribute to a wage gap for women, especially women of color: Research shows that white women make about 77 cents on a white man’s dollar, black women are paid only 65 cents, and Hispanic women take home just over half a comparable white man’s salary. The gap persists even for college-educated black women, who make a median income of $50,000 a year to a white woman’s $56,000.

Often absent from conversations about the wage gap is the fact that black women are far more likely than white women to work full time. While white women have entered the economy in greater and greater numbers since the 1920s, they remain likely to have higher-earning husbands or partners, reducing the impact of their lower pay and shorter hours. Black women’s participation in the workforce has remained consistent, meanwhile, and consistently higher than white women’s—in 2014, 57 percent of white women worked as compared to 62 percent of black women—in part because of black men’s lower earning power. Eighty percent of black mothers contribute at least 40 percent of their households’ incomes; fewer than half of white mothers carry that level of financial responsibility.

As the report highlights, despite bearing more of the economic burden for their families than any other demographic of women, black women are also among the most engaged in pushing for social change. Black Lives Matter was founded by three black women—Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. The Women’s March on Washington was organized by women of color. And even in 2016, when turnout among minority voters was low, black women voted at a rate almost three points higher than Americans overall. There’s no reliable way to tell what that figure might be if not for rampant voter suppression: As the report notes, “[o]f the ten states in which Black women compose the largest proportion of the female population, nine states had implemented voter identification laws as of March 2016,” with gerrymandering and district packing further diluting their influence. Black women are underrepresented at every level of U.S. politics, comprising 6.4 percent of the population but only 3.4 percent of seats in the United States Congress and 3.5 percent of seats in state legislatures, with one black woman currently in the Senate.*

The report cites a 2006 study of the Mississippi legislature, in which black women representatives introduced more bills to promote both gender equality and racial equality than either white female or black male lawmakers, to illustrate the importance of supporting black women in running for office. “While black women are working hard, democracy isn’t working for us, and hard work isn’t paying off,” Garza said on Wednesday. “It’s time for an agenda that puts black women at the center, for the sake of all of us.”

*Correction, June 8, 2017: This post originally misstated that there are no black women in the U.S. Senate. There is a black female senator, Kamala Harris.