President, National Partnership for Women & Families
Amid the ongoing national conversation about the scope and resilience of the recovery from the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic, some have suggested that women workers have rebounded from the pandemic’s economic and job losses and largely have returned to the workforce at pre-pandemic levels. But this narrative oversimplifies the current realities for many women workers especially the experiences of Black women. Even though Black women often have the highest labor force participation among all women, they experience significant disparities when compared to their white counterparts – in unemployment, wages, access to key workforce supports, and advancement opportunities. These problems existed prior to the pandemic, were exacerbated during the pandemic, and have continued even as the economy has begun to rebound. A real recovery must do more than return to a pre-pandemic status quo that simply perpetuates longstanding disparities and policy gaps. Rather, it must tackle persistent barriers that have undermined Black women’s employment and, in doing so, create more equitable workplaces for all women workers.
Black women’s experiences in the labor force and economy have been shaped by many factors, including the entrenched racism and sexism rooted in this country’s founding. Biases about Black women have fueled systemic practices that have devalued their work and depressed their wages and stereotypes about their skills and work ethic, all of which have limited their labor market opportunities.
Furthermore, many of the factors that undermine women’s employment overall disproportionately impact Black women. They often take on the bulk of caregiving responsibilities for their families, and are also a disproportionate share of paid caregivers, contending with low wages and inadequate benefits. Without sustainable, comprehensive solutions to address the care needs of workers and support caregivers, the employment outcomes of Black women will continue to suffer.
In February 2020, just before the pandemic began, Black women’s labor force participation rate was 63.9%. In January 2023, Black women’s labor force participation had rebounded to 62.6% (the highest of any group of women) compared to 59.3% in April 2020.
However, Black women continue to experience disproportionately high unemployment. In February 2020, prime-age Black women had an unemployment rate of 4.8%; by May 2020, unemployment for Black women had peaked at 16.6%. Even as unemployment decreases, Black women are still more likely to be unemployed than other groups of women – in January 2023, Black women over the age of 20 had an unemployment rate of 4.7% compared to 2.8% for white, non-Hispanic women, 2.6% for Asian women, 4.4% for Hispanic/Latina women.
Improving the employment outcomes and economic well-being of Black women requires more than an understanding of their labor force participation and unemployment rates. Black women continue to face a pronounced wage gap in comparison to white men and women. In 2022, women workers (inclusive of those who work part-time or part of the year) were paid just 77 cents for every dollar paid to a man. However, Black women workers were paid just 64 cents for each dollar paid to white male workers; white, non-Hispanic women were paid 73 cents, Hispanic/Latina women 54 cents, and Native-American women just 51 cents for every dollar paid to white, non-Hispanic men. These disparities depress lifetime earnings and have far-ranging impacts on everyday quality of life, ability to accumulate wealth, reserves for financial emergencies, and retirement outcomes.
Occupational segregation is a primary driver of the race and gender wage gaps. Black women are more likely to work in low-paying service sector jobs, such as home health aides and cashiers. Supporting Black women’s employment requires improving wages and benefits in the occupations in which they are most likely to work and addressing barriers to their employment in higher paying occupations.
Employment alone does not determine the economic well-being of Black women and their families. Despite higher rates of labor force participation, Black women experience the highest rates of poverty. In 2021, the official poverty rate for Black women was 20.9% compared to 18.8% for Hispanic/Latina women, 12.6% for women overall, and 8.9% for White, non-Hispanic women. Black women with children are more likely to experience hunger and food insecurity than other families. Black women are also disproportionately rent-burdened and are more likely to experience evictions over their lifetimes than white women. And Black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than their white counterparts.
Building an economy that supports Black women’s well-being, ensures they can meet their and their families’ needs, and improves their employment requires solutions that intentionally address structural racism and sexism. Government intervention and policy solutions such as paid family and medical leave, paid sick leave, and high-quality, affordable child care can help Black women balance their family and work responsibilities without being forced to sacrifice crucial income or time with loved ones. Other interventions include robust enforcement of employment discrimination laws; intentional strategies to raise wages, such as increasing the minimum wage, eliminating subminimum wages, and improving pay for care workers; and commitments from employers to review internal practices and evaluate hiring and promotions with a racial and gender justice lens.
Black mothers are the most likely of any group of mothers to be breadwinners for their families, and Black women provide countless hours of unpaid caregiving for their families, civic activism in their communities, and work that drives the economy. Black women deserve an economy that works for them – it is past time for policymakers to prioritize solutions that advance their economic well-being and employment.
5 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Current Population Survey Table A-4. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by race, Hispanic of Latino ethnicity, sex and age, seasonally adjusted,” available at http://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/ cpseea04.pdf (last accessed February 2023).
6 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Economic News Release, Table A-2. Employment status of the civilian population by race, sex, and age,” available at https:// http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t02.htm (last accessed February 2023); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Economic News Release, Table A-3. Employment status of the Hispanic or Latino population by sex and age,” available at https://www.bls.gov/news.release/ empsit.t03.htm (last accessed February 2023); U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, A-15. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, sex, and age,” available at http://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpseea15.htm (last accessed February 2023).
7 National Partnership for Women & Families (October, 2022). Factsheet: America’s Women and the Wage Gap. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/economic-justice/fair-pay/americas-women-and-the-wage-gap.pdf
8 Ross, K. & Dorazio J. (2022, December). The Latest Poverty, Income, and Food Insecurity Data Reveal Continuing Racial Disparities. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-latest-poverty-income-and-food-insecurity-data-reveal-continuing-racial-disparities/
9 Feeding America. (n.d.). Hunger hits Black communities harder. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://www.feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/black-communities
10 Population Reference Bureau. (2021, December 6). Black Women Over Three Times More Likely to Die in Pregnancy, Postpartum Thank White Women, New Research Finds. Retrieved 22 February, 2023, from https://www.prb.org/resources/black-women-over-three-times-more-likely-to-die-in-pregnancy-postpartum-than-white-women-new-research-finds/
11 Nelson, E. (2021, February 5). The Economist Placing Value on Black Women’s Overlooked Work, New York Times. Retrieved 22 February 2023, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/05/business/black-women-economists-nina-banks.html