A look at the state of Black women in the U.S. economy

Janelle Jones, the nation’s new chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is becoming synonymous with the term “Black Women Best.” The theory suggests that because Black women occupy a low rung in our economic society, policy shifts that focus on their empowerment will undoubtedly lead to improvements for the American labor force and the economy as a whole.

The struggle for employment and economic equality has been an ongoing one for Black women in the United States. As Jones and her co-authors wrote in their September 2020 brief, “our economy was built in large part upon Black women’s diminished power—through unpaid, exploited, and forced labor.”

Although there have been inroads made in areas like closing the wage gap between Black men and Black women, it hasn’t been enough. According to recent research, it took full-time employed Black women an additional 7.5 months to earn the same level of compensation that their White male counterparts earned in one year.

Enter Covid-19. An economy that already saw Black women underpaid by nearly $50 billion was then bulldozed by a pandemic that forced many companies to close their doors. And the industries facing the greatest impact, like hospitality, are also the ones that employ the greatest percentage of Black women. Between February and March of 2020, the unemployment rate for Black women jumped from 5.3% to 16.9%, making theirs the highest rate amongst all Black and white workers.

Where Black people have continued to work, it has often been on the front lines as “essential workers,” a frightening designation to have during a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted its victims of color. The Economic Policy Institute found that while Black workers were only 11.9% of the total workforce, they make up 17% of frontline workers. Often, these essential roles have weaker benefits and salaries than other positions within an industry.

Gender has played a huge role in the economic displacement of Black women. Many systems and policies are still based on the ideal of women being the stay-at-home half of a two-parent household wherein the male head is the breadwinner. But tremendous changes have occurred within household structures. A 2019 study by the Center for American Progress revealed that the past few decades have seen a steep decline in the number of American households headed by married couples. The study also uncovered that women of color are more likely than White women to be unmarried mothers. This, in turn, often deems them the sole providers for their households.

Putting all this together means that Black women tend to work in industries and roles that are extremely vulnerable in a post-Covid environment. The increase in earnings that they have attained is still substantially lower than their White counterparts. And the salaries they earn go a shorter distance in households where they are the breadwinner or only earner.

All this considered, it’s no wonder that Jones believes the focus should be on improving the station of this group. Or, as activist and author Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman wrote, “Black women are the core of the nation’s economy, holding the frontline jobs and running small businesses, and they are more often the single heads of households in their communities… If they are elevated through policy… the economy at-large will.”