‘Black women best’: Why putting Black women first may save us from economic disaster

In 2008, our economy experienced an economic crisis in which Black women lost 258,000 jobs—more than twice as many as the jobs gained by Black men.

Our current economic crisis is unfortunately offering up disparity déjà vu. The ravages of the coronavirus have resulted in employment among Black women dropping 11 percentage points—more than any other group. Despite historically low unemployment rates in March, within a month of the pandemic, Black women’s unemployment rate has climbed to 16.9%, suffering the greatest job losses as compared with other groups.

Figure A

Employment has dropped sharply in the COVID-19 labor market—Black women face the largest losses: Employment-to-population ratio by race and gender, February–April 2020

February March April
All white workers 61.3% 60.2 51.8 
All Black workers 59.4  57.8 48.8
White men 67.5  66.2 58.3
White women 55.4  54.5 45.5
Black men 60.7  59.6 50.5
Black women 58.4  56.2 47.4

 

ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: White refers to non-Hispanic whites, Black refers to Blacks alone. The employment-to-population ratio is the share of the population who are working.

Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey public data.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

Black women are bearing the brunt of this economic crisis, and keep in mind that Black women were already underpaid upwards of $50 billion in forfeited wages before the pandemic, according to economist Michelle Holder. These findings illustrate an ugly truth: COVID-19 is laying bare the structural inequities that compound when race and gender intersect—inequities that may be best addressed through recentering economic policy on Black women.

Why should policymakers center Black women?

Black women are the core of the nation’s economy, holding the front-line jobs and running small businesses, and they are more often the single heads of households in their communities. If they are elevated through policy, including everything from paid sick leave to stimulus programs targeted directly toward them, the economy at-large will benefit.

Unfortunately, decisions that have already been made don’t take racial and gender inequities into account.

Figure B

While unemployment skyrocketed for Black and white workers in the COVID-19 labor market, the unemployment rate is higher for Black workers: Unemployment rates by race, and by race and gender, February–April 2020

February March April
All white workers 3.1%  4.0% 14.2% 
All Black workers 5.8% 6.7% 16.7% 
White men 3.2% 4.0% 12.8% 
White women 3.0% 3.9% 15.8% 
Black men 6.4% 7.6% 16.4% 
Black women 5.3% 5.9% 16.9% 
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: White refers to non-Hispanic whites, Black refers to Blacks alone.

Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey public data.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

For example, the Federal Reserve Board decided to expand funding for small businesses in light of the recent crisis. As of right now, Black businesses, many of which are owned by women, are most likely to be overrepresented in industries hardest hit by COVID-19; anecdotal evidence suggests that Black business owners are also finding difficulties in applying for funding offered by the Federal Reserve Board.

Figure C

Black-owned businesses are a small share of overall business, but are most likely to be in industries impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns: Shares of firm ownership by industry

Industry distribution of employer firms Black-owned White-owned 
All firms 9.4% 78.0%
Other services (except public admin.) 25.1% 11.1%
Health care and social assistance 19.1% 7.7%
Retail trade 6.2% 9.4%
Arts, entertainment, and recreation  4.8% 5.1%
Accommodation and food services 2.3% 2.6%
Admin./support/waste mgmt./ remediation srvcs. 11.4% 8.0%
Professional, scientific, and technical services 8.0% 15.4%
Transportation and warehousing 7.1% 3.9%
Construction 5.3% 11.8%
Real estate 3.0% 10.7%
Educational services 2.6% 2.4%
Finance 1.7% 3.8%
Information 1.1% 1.5%
Manufacturing 0.9% 2.3%
Wholesale trade 0.9% 2.7%
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Notes: †Indicates the three industries that saw the largest declines in payroll employment in April 2020. *Indicates the three industries that saw the largest percent change declines in payroll employment in April 2020. Totals may not sum to 100%. Industries making up less than 1% of total share (agriculture, mining, utilities, management of companies and enterprises) are omitted.

Source: Authors’ analysis of U.S. Census Bureau, Survey of Business Owners (2012).

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

If the economy is working for Black women, then the economy is working for everyone—an ideology that Janelle Jones, Managing Director of Policy and Research at the Groundwork Collaborative, coined as “Black women best.” Kendra Bozarth of the Roosevelt Institute explains: “If Black women—who, since our nation’s founding, have been the most disadvantaged by the rules that structure our society—can one day thrive in the economy, then it must finally be working for everyone.”

Right now, the economy is not working for Black women. LeanIn recently surveyed nearly 3,000 individuals, and found 60% of Black women were concerned about paying their rent or mortgage as compared with just 24% of white men, which may be due to the fact that Black women are three times as likely as white women to be single heads of households. On the dimensions of paying for groceries and affording child care, there was a 30 and 10 percentage point gap between Black women and white men, respectively.

Figure D

Black women are more likely to be single heads of households and single parents than white women: Shares of Black and white households by selected family type, 2018

Black White
Married couple family 27.1% 51.2%
Married couple family with minor children 10.6% 17.4%
Single female householder family 26.4% 8.6%
Single female householder family with minor children 14.4% 4.0%
ChartData Download data

The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Note: White refers to non-Hispanic whites, Black refers to Blacks alone. Black households are households in which the head of household is Black. White households are households in which the head of household is white.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2018 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates, Table S0201.

Copy the code below to embed this chart on your website.

Furthermore, across the United States, the share of Black women employed in service occupations ranges from 23% in Maryland to 40% in Rhode Island. Many service-sector jobs are considered “essential,” despite the fact that on average, essential workers are less likely to have benefits and face higher health risks. The stories punctuating deaths among Black women highlight those dying on the front lines as health care workers, grocery store clerks, and teachers.

Employers should shift their thinking on paid sick and parental leave, subsidized child and elder care, and work flexibility to help Black women, who are disproportionately facing COVID-19-related deaths in their communities. This shift can inevitably help all workers regardless of background. When the policies shift to focus on the outcomes of Black women, everyone benefits.

Another example of how “Black women best” being at the center of economic policy helps everyone is government mobile payments, which Economist Lisa D. Cook cites as one way to alleviate economic hardship. Imagine if policymakers considered how direct mobile payments via Venmo or Cash App could reach Black mothers who are being asked to meet looming deadlines. Black women would be the aim, but universally, needs would be met.

“Black women best” also translates into prioritizing the perspectives of Black women in economic and policy spaces, an objective that is currently being achieved by the Sadie Collective, a nonprofit organization that addresses the underrepresentation of Black women in economics and related fields. Recently, the organization penned a letter to allies, inclusive of individuals and organizations, constituting a list of demands that aim to achieve equity for Black women. To date, the letter has been endorsed by nearly 2,000 individuals and organizations, and cross-posted by the Economic Policy Institute as well as the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Within the Federal Reserve System, structural racism and sexism have kept Black women out of leadership roles that contribute meaningfully to the health of the U.S. economy and beyond. Specifically, out of 406 economists staffed at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, only one identifies as a Black woman.

Because Black women make up the majority of the Black labor force, they are the pulse of the U.S. economy. By ignoring them, economists and policymakers run the risk of propagating lasting economic ramifications.

As we grapple with the historic job losses, uneven distribution of relief, and widening racial wage gaps, we must not forget to care for and protect Black women. And we must not forget those Black women who died working and serving their communities amidst a global pandemic—women like Rana Zoe Mungin, a beloved social studies teacher and activist from Brooklyn; Leilani Jordan, a Maryland supermarket greeter hired under a program for people with disabilities who helped elderly shoppers make their purchases; and Priscilla Carrow, a community activist from Queens and a hospital worker who was planning on retiring by the end of this year.

Their stories illustrate that indeed Black women are a key part of the backbone of the economy and our communities; as one of Carrow’s friends told a local TV news outlet after her passing: “There were so many people who relied on her so it’s affecting the lives of many, many people.”