A recent report on the status of black women in the United States has attracted attention with its provocative declaration that “black women consistently work for a better country, but our country is not working for them.”
Although black women show up at the polls at high rates, have made significant improvement in earning college degrees and are the fastest-growing segment of business owners, the report also notes that they continue to be underrepresented in elected office, earn less than white women and are twice as likely as white women to be incarcerated, the report says.
The report, which draws heavily on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, was prepared by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a nonprofit organization affiliated with George Washington University.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance, which released the study last week, made a number of recommendations to improve the lives of black women. The progressive group called for higher minimum wages, Medicaid expansion, mandatory paid leave and affordable child care, among other proposals.
Patrice Onwuka is a senior policy analyst with the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative think tank. Onwuka, who is black, argues that some of the report’s suggestions could hold black women back by making it harder to save money and open businesses. We asked her to respond to some of the key findings of the report via email and make suggestions for addressing the challenges black women face.
Her responses have been edited for length.
Do you agree with the general conclusion of the report, that black women work hard but are not getting much of a return from society?
There are significant challenges for many black women, but this report paints an overly negative portrait of life for us.
What this report neglects is the impact that the lack of (generational) wealth has on the security and mobility of black women. Blacks start over every generation. The most recent recession was devastating for the black family, yet despite the increase in government spending programs, black wealth has yet to recover. It’s time for a change, but some of the policy subscriptions in this report are the same solutions that limit opportunity.
Blacks are the most optimistic of all demographic groups, perhaps because black women are so resilient. Research suggests that black women are ambitious, confident and hungry for opportunity. I wish that would have been better reflected.
Among the key findings are that although more than 60 percent of black women are in the workforce they are overrepresented in low-wage jobs, and even in higher-salaried jobs they are paid less than every group except Latinas. How do you recommend this be remedied?
We have to examine the reasons so many black women are working in low-paying jobs, and we see that a lack of education and/or skills are a part of the equation. Black women are making fantastic gains in education and earning more degrees than black men. However, black students are overrepresented in lower-paying majors that lead to lower-paying jobs. At the high school level, we need to expose black girls to the majors and jobs that pay more, but we have to accept their choice may still be toward human services and education.
Our education system also needs to present non-college career tracks as on par with college. A four-year degree is not the only or the best path to the middle class for everyone. Starting your own business, apprenticeships and industry-specific training or programs that don’t require a college degree may be best suited to some of our black girls. President Trump has announced a major initiative to create 5 million apprenticeships over the next five years in industries that could deliver new paths for people of color into stable, good-paying jobs with benefits. Federal aid that’s available to college students could be expanded to fund apprenticeships and other non-college options, which relieves black families of the burdens of paying for career development.
Once we have black women in higher-paying jobs, we need to empower them to negotiate for what they believe they should be earning. Women don’t tend to negotiate, but if we’re teaching our girls at the high school level about negotiating salaries and benefits, we can build their confidence for the future.
Finally, in cases where there is discrimination based on race and gender, we need to call it out and prosecute it.
On the health front, black women with major illnesses tend to have worse outcomes, particularly in regard to mortality rates. How can black women have better access to health care, especially given the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act?
We have to improve access to health care for black women as well as changing the circumstances that lead to poor health. The Affordable Care Act decreased the uninsured rate from 14.6 percent to 11.6 percent, but we can’t ignore the toll it took. The ACA resulted in double-digit increases in monthly premiums, five- and six-digit deductibles, and narrowed networks of doctors, hospitals and specialists. Adding more people to an already overloaded Medicaid system has made it harder for those who are most sick and vulnerable, like black women, to get access to quality care.
As we look at repeal, we should ensure that the truly sick and needy can get access to quality care. Two-thirds of those newly enrolled in Medicaid were actually eligible for the program before the expansion, so repeal of the ACA won’t affect them. We expect Congress to work to ensure that the remaining third will be covered.
We can’t leave out of this discussion factors like unemployment, poverty and incarceration, which also play a role in whether black women can address illness when it arises.
The report cites the high rate of incarceration for black women vs. white women. Is criminal justice reform the answer?
Criminal justice reform is absolutely the answer and we’re seeing remarkable reforms at the state level. Incarceration traps too many into a cycle of poverty and it breaks families apart.
Republicans and Democrats are making intentional efforts to correct some of the one-size-fits-all policies like mandatory sentencing and zero-tolerance rules. There is a conscious realization among lawmakers that we can punish crime but keep low-risk, nonviolent offenders out of prison and help people reintegrate into the workforce once they are released. This is critical for black women as women comprise the fastest-growing state prison population. In Texas, for example, the use of community supervision as an alternative to incarceration keeps low-risk women out of prison. It allows them to continue working — maintaining household income — and to keep their families together.
The report notes a 178 percent increase between 2002 and 2012 in businesses owned by black women. But it also notes that businesses owned by black women had the lowest average sales per firm among racial and ethnic groups of women and men. Is there a role for government to help black women business owners?
The growth of business among black women is exciting, but low sales and a lack of capital stunt female business owners. Women tend to self-fund or seek informal funding networks rather than securing loans and venture capital. Tax reform, which cuts corporate and individual tax rates, will allow business owners to keep more of their income and allow individuals to keep more of their pay which they can save toward starting their own businesses. Add to this scaling back regulations and the costs attached to compliance — especially in health-care industries where the businesses of black women are concentrated — can free them up to grow their business. When we tackle these issues alone, we knock off half of the top 10 most severe problems for small business owners.
I also see a role for business consulting and mentorship that federal agencies like the Small Business Administration (SBA), working with local chambers of commerce, can provide for female entrepreneurs. If you don’t know how to value your business offerings or how to create new revenue streams, you’re destined to stay at the same level.
The report, as well as others, notes that black women have a high rate of participation in the political process but are underrepresented at all levels of government. Some believe that if more black women were in elected office, their issues would be better addressed. Do you agree?
Women do bring a different perspective and experience to the table. However, electing more black women will not solve the issues laid out in this report if the policies they promote expand the power government at the cost of economic and personal freedom. We need elected officials pushing solutions which put money back in the pockets of workers through lower taxes, that untangle small businesses from growth-stifling regulations, and that expand opportunities in the workforce.
Many of the issues affecting low-income communities and black communities are connected to a lack of generational wealth which provides a cushion for unemployment and illness, capital to start businesses and funds to pay for educational opportunities. We can’t build wealth with policies that make it expensive to save, purchase houses and pass on wealth to future generations.