As the leading woman presidential candidate campaigns against the backdrop of the twentieth anniversary of welfare reform, the legacy of Clinton’s early political career continues to resonate painfully for black women. They still participate in the US workforce at a rate higher than that of other women—59.2 percent, compared to 57 percent of women overall—but still earn just 67 cents for every dollar a white male earns, and only about 80 percent of what a white woman earns each week.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research (IWPR), the gender wage gap for black women grew markedly from 2004 to 2014: “Black women’s real median annual earnings for full-time, year-round work declined by 5.0 percent—more than three times as much as women’s earnings overall.” Black men’s median earnings fell 6.9 percent over this period. White women’s earnings declined by just .3 percent.
The trend is especially bleak since the financial collapse. Black households overall experienced a major income decline with the recession as well as the subsequent years, according to Economic Policy Institute: “the weak labor market of the 2000–2007 business cycle, along with the Great Recession, have wiped out all improvements in median black income since 1994.”
Black women have long lagged behind white women in narrowing the income gap—white women closed the wage gap with men by some 22 cents per dollar since 1980, but black women closed the gap by just 9 cents. The undervaluing of black women’s labor costs them literally a double-penalty for their race and gender over the course of their lives: the average lifetime income differential amounts to about $877,480, nearly twice as much as the average wage gap faced by white women.
Some relatively poor states saw gains in black women’s earnings from 2004 to 2014: the three largest statewide improvements in black women’s median yearly earnings were in West Virginia, Arkansas, and Mississippi—with wage increases of about 8.5, 8.4 and 5.5 percent respectively. By contrast, Ohio, once a bulwark of middle-class blue-collar jobs, saw a 13 percent drop in black women’s incomes. Altogether, black women’s earnings declined in 13 states by 6 percent or more.
The pattern may reflect in part the role of public sector employment, which has historically channeled communities of color into economic security. In Arkansas, for example, state and local government employment rose by over 5 percent from 2008 to 2012, while the private sector shrunk by 4.7 percent. Mississippi’s public workforce expanded by 5.4 percent, while private sector employment dipped by 1.7 percent.
According to Chandra Childers, co-author of the IWPR analysis, the past decade saw “overall loss of jobs that paid well while low-wage jobs have been growing as a share of all employment…black women and other women of color are disproportionately working in these jobs.”
A study by University of Washington sociologist Jennifer Laird found that in the aftermath of the Great Recession, “Between 2009 and 2011, there was a steep decline in the employment rates for black women in the public sector…As of 2013, prime-age employment rates for black female public sector were still 4.6 percentage points lower than the 2008 peak.”
Another factor aggravating the racial income deficit could be declining unionization, since the wage premium linked to the “union advantage” boosts black women’s earnings by roughly a third more compared to non-union counterparts.
The long-term effect of the earnings gap is a massive racial wealth divide. The typical wealth owned by a single white woman in 2013 was about $15,640, compared to just $200 in assets for a single black woman. Single black women face massive barriers to entering the “ownership society” overall; they own homes and businesses at just about half the rate as single white women. And Black women who do accumulate some wealth are more vulnerable to having it stripped by predatory lending schemes. Nearly four in ten households headed by black women live in poverty.
Black women’s economic stagnation is linked to structural disparities in the workforce. About 47 percent of white women and half of Asian women workers held professional or managerial positions, compared to 26 percent of Latinas and 35 percent of working black women. Black women tend to cluster in lower-paid service and sales jobs.
The income gap also feeds into health gaps: Black women are about twice as likely as their white peers to have a baby with low birthweight. They are twice as likely to die of cervical cancer, and 14 times as likely to die of HIV/AIDS. Black women also tend to face “higher rates of psychosocial stressors such as chronic stress, depression, discrimination and be more likely to live and work in a worse physical and social environment,” according to a recent study based in Mississippi. A 2010 Center for Community Economic Development analysis found that since they a more likely to lack paid sick leave, black women workers are more likely to “be forced to leave a job due to illness.”
Yet despite continual social disempowerment, black women form the economic core of their communities. About two-thirds serve as the primary breadwinners of their households. Their social role is influenced by the social devastation of mass incarceration among black men, which has deeply traumatized and destabilized black households.
President Obama has pushed through administrative orders that could boost the economic prospects for workers of color, especially black women. For example, a slew of recent executive orders provides higher wages and safety and job security protections for federal contract workers. And the Labor Department’s expansion of overtime pay standards last year would dramatically improve hourly earnings for women and black workers.
Despite those modest remedies, the disaster of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform—one generation on and still failing to deliver on politicians’ promises of lifting black women out of poverty—drove racial inequality, and destroyed safety-net programs through budget cuts and punitive strictures against recipients. The subsequent erosion of the black civil service reveals a ripple effect of reform: first it crushed the public benefits that helped shield communities of color from poverty. And now it’s attacking the black workers who earned a living serving their communities.
There are many reasons why welfare reform “failed” but mainly, it succeeded in its primary underlying mission: the project of preserving the racial economic hierarchy has worked exactly as designed.