Posted December 13, 2022
Occupational segregation in the United States reflects the systemic and structural racism built into the economy that marginalizes people of color. Black workers are “crowded” into industries with poor working conditions, wages, and job security. Black workers have also historically worked in jobs with the highest injury and fatality rates than other workers. Black women in particular are sorted into low-wage service sector occupations and five occupations account for more than half of all the jobs in which Black women work.
The COVID pandemic has destabilized health, housing, and economic security for many communities in the United States and specifically for underpaid Black women. COVID disruptions to work and healthcare have compounded the challenges that Black women already face. Sixty-eight percent of Black mothers are the primary or sole breadwinners for their families. Black women are overrepresented in underpaid work, and are especially vulnerable to the disruptions to income and job loss caused by the pandemic. Many Black women also work in positions that are now deemed essential including as nursing assistants, home health aides, and child care workers. This requirement to work at the frontlines of the pandemic puts Black women and their families at increased risk of exposure to the health and economic impacts of COVID. It has become abundantly clear that the US does not have the cohesive, integrated infrastructure to meet this monumental moment. Yet an ecosystem of Black women leaders and Black-led organizations are visioning new and bold program, policy, and narrative solutions that support Black women workers and address the impacts of occupational segregation.
An Economy for All: Building a Black Women Best Legislative Agenda is a robust policy framework that centers Black women and recognizes that Black women’s economic well-being is central to a thriving economy. This framework recognizes the compounding impacts of racial and gender discrimination, and how Black women are sorted into underpaid, unstable, and dangerous occupations. NELP continues to advocate for policies recommended in the report such as increased wages, paid family and medical leave, expanded access to unemployment insurance to support building Black women worker power and addressing the harmful impacts of occupational segregation.
Bold policies such as guaranteed income also have the potential to build Black women worker power. The Magnolia Mothers’ Trust, a program of Springboard to Opportunities, is the first basic income pilot that specifically centered Black women head of households in Mississippi. The framework for the pilot was to provide “unrestricted, no strings attached cash…to better understand how a non-punitive, trust-based benefit could support families in not only exiting poverty but knowing that they have the freedom, dignity, and agency to be the anchors of their own lives”. The initial pilot found that 100% of participants reported being able to meet their basic needs, increased positive family engagement, ability to pay bills, completion of high school education, and ability to pay over $10,000 in predatory debt. Make Sure the Shoe Fits: An Exploration of Guaranteed Income Pilots in California, a recent report from the Insight Center, underscores that targeted guaranteed income for Black women, creates more expansive choice with respect to work, has the potential to lift families out of poverty, and move the US towards a more equitable economy.
Shifting the harmful impacts of occupational segregation for Black women workers also means dismantling the pervasive anti-Black narratives that undergird how work & the economy are shaped for them. Anti-Black racism is the scaffolding and fulcrum of radical economic inequality in the U.S., and of continued attempts to strip workers and communities of power and dignity. Moving towards narratives that Center Blackness “demands that we create and design policies and practices that intentionally lift up and protect Black people.” Radical shifts for Black women workers mean building new narratives centered on abundance, dignity, and collective liberation.