The war on poverty has been fought by Black women in the United States for centuries, beginning with their resistance to the wholesale exploitation of their physical and reproductive labor as slaves.
At the start of the twentieth century, pervasive, overt racial and gender discrimination barred Black women from most jobs, denied them equal education, and disenfranchised them politically.
Issues of equal pay, exploitation, and physical and sexual violence and harassment on the job during the Jim-Crow era were common experiences for Black women who often were the sole provider in their households, employed mostly at the lowest pay as domestic workers.
Institutional and structural barriers impeded Black women’s ability to accumulate wealth then, as it does today.
Historically, African Americans were excluded from many of the policies that allowed whites to accumulate and transfer wealth and assets from generation to generation.
In addition to laws and policies that restricted Black people from owning property or prevented access to quality jobs, parallel laws prevented women from owning property and prevented access to quality jobs.
After mid-century, slowly and sometimes with violent opposition, the situation of African Americans as a whole changed as the courts and Congress—prodded by a massive social and civil rights movement, national embarrassment on the world stage during the cold war, and the electoral concerns of urban politicians—extended political and civil rights.
However, for Black women, the road to economic parity remained arduous as war was declared on Black women’s agency with the release of the Moynihan report in 1965 which named the “Black matriarch” among contributing factors to Black poverty and the destruction of the Black family structure.
As a result of the Moynihan report policy makers focused efforts to address the problem of Black poverty and lack of economic opportunity by attending to the needs of black males and black children, and not by considering the needs of black women who were raising those children.
The report further pushed the needs of black women to the fringes and reinforced the position of the black woman as unseen, unappreciated, and uncompensated caretaker.
However Black women still led affirmative action and new “welfare rights” campaigns and fought for the extension of social citizenship—guarantees of food, shelter, medical care, and education.
By the late 1980s the government had effectively labeled Black women “welfare queens”, and a full-fledged attack was launched against the poorest of Black women, those receiving welfare.
By the end of the century, Black immigrant women from the Caribbean and Africa had expanded the struggle for economic justice, and as Black immigrants, they also became casualties of the racist, historical economic structures and systems that sustained both the formal and informal barriers that had excluded Blacks and women from most institutions and from the most favorable labor market positions.
The Situation Today:
Today, women of color still rank lowest in wealth and economic security. In 2008, a ground-breaking study by the Insight Center for Economic Development, Lifting As We Climb, revealed that single Black women have one penny of wealth for every dollar of wealth owned by Black men and only a tiny fraction of a penny for every dollar of wealth owned by white women. Black single mothers with children under 18 years have a median net wealth of zero compared to $7,970 of wealth held by white women with children. Among Black families, 68 percent of Black women have no net financial savings and live from paycheck to paycheck. In Black communities, we know more women are working and according to the Women of Color Policy Network, consequently, community tends to equate income with wealth, measuring economic well-being by the pay one brings home, no matter how unsustainable.
Moreover, women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups, the Black community included. In fact, according to the Half In Ten Campaign and Women in the Labor Force Data Report, the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world. Although the 2010 census reflects some minor progress for Black women in terms of gaps in earnings across race and gender, recent data shows that 26.5 percent of African-American women are poor compared to 22.3 percent of African-American men; 23.6 percent of Latina women are poor compared to 19.6 percent of Latino men; 11.6 percent of white women are poor compared to 9.4 percent of white men; and 10.7 percent of Asian women are poor compared to 9.7 percent of Asian men.
Yet the fierce debate around economic justice is rarely focuses on race- and gender-based challenges for Black and Latina women and rarely does it consider these women across their economic life-span.
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