In both the current situation (the recession) and in the medium run (the last few decades), Black women are losing ground – relative to Whites, and in some cases absolutely. What is going on?
Life not at the top
Back during the presidential campaign, I suggested that Barack Obama’s success didn’t mean the average Black person in America was doing better than before: “What happens at the tails of the distribution – out at the extremes, where the fastest people run, and the most successful minorities thrive – is not a good measure of what’s happening at the middle of the distribution, where the average is found.” Today there is a tendency to use Michelle Obama as a symbol for Black women’s progress. Even The Government does this, as in, “Michelle Obama Presents Modern Image for Black Women,” which celebrates how her “combination of her professional and domestic success challenges stereotypical media images of black women in America.”
But below the top of the distribution, things are not going as well.
Work and wages
We’ve known for months that men are losing a lot more jobs than women in this recession. And, of course, it has cost Blacks more than Whites. But as I reported the other day, the Black-White gap in job losses is greater among women. Specifically, Black women have lost 5.2% of their jobs in the year ending October 2009, while White women lost 2.5%. That’s a ratio of 2.1:1. Among men, the Black-White loss ratio was “only” 1.5:1. For the first time in a long time, White women are more likely to have jobs than Black women. (All this is based on non-institutionalized civilians ages 20+.)
Source: My chart from BLS data.
This divergence in the last year follows a longer trend of increasing wage inequality between Black and White women, thoroughly investigated in, “Employment Gains and Wage Declines: The Erosion of Black Women’s Relative Wages Since 1980,” by Becky Pettit and Stephanie Ewert in the latest issue of Demography. In the late 1970s, White women’s wages were less than 5% more than Black women’s, and they are now more than 10% higher – closer to 15% higher for young workers.
Why are Black women falling further behind? After an in-depth statistical analysis, they conclude:
Despite decades of educational expansion, employed black women continue to lag behind employed whites in the educational qualifications that are increasingly relevant in the contemporary workplace. Premarket educational inequalities are magnified by a labor market that increasingly rewards education. Widening racial gaps in marriage—combined with growing returns to marriage—also disadvantage African American women. These factors, combined with a retreat from affirmative action programs and weak enforcement of employment discrimination law, may have uniquely disadvantaged the economic fortunes of black women.
Success at the top may bring benefits to those who recognize or celebrate it. But it shouldn’t be confused with success for everyone else.
Today: Work and wages
Next: Health and life