Why Black Women (Still) Can’t Seem To Get Ahead Economically
Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.
Make no mistake, Black women work hard, but many of us are still stuck in a seemingly unending cycle of poverty. And it’s not that we don’t have the skills or even an entrepreneurial spirit to change our circumstances, there are a lot of factors — both internal and external — that come into play regarding our economic standing.
Black women are “graduating high school, attending college, participating in the labor force, and starting businesses at higher rates, but they still aren’t seeing the rewards of their hard work, reported Think Progress after examining a recent report from the Black Women’s Roundtable, the women’s initiative of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.
In fact, according to the latest stats, young Black women have increased their high school graduation rate by 63 percent over the past 50 years, more than tripling it and “virtually eliminating the gap with Asian women (down to 2 percent), and significantly narrowing the gap with white women (7 percent),” the report noted. Of the Blacks who went to college and earned a Bachelor’s Degree in 2010, 66 percent were women, 71 percent with a Master’s, and 65 percent with a Doctorate.
And Black women are no strangers to entrepreneurship. Black women are starting businesses at six times the national average and make up the fastest growing segment of women-owned businesses. “Black women own more than 1 million firms, employ 272,000 people other than themselves, and generate an estimated $44.9 billion in revenue,” Think Progress noted.
So if we have all of this going for us, why we can’t get ahead? Cultural mindset and a fear of excelling plays a major role it seems. It’s something Saideh Browne, Director of Development for United Nations’ Non-Governmental Organization National Council of Women of the United States, knows firsthand. “I believe one of the main reasons Black women get trapped in poverty is our culture and environment. There is a tremendous amount of pressure placed on Black women, in particular, whereby they feel they are indebted to their race; and once any modicum of success is attained, they’re viewed as a turncoat.
“It starts at a very young age. I was told during my entire childhood that I talked ‘white,’ that I was acting ‘white’ and that I thought I was better than anyone else. So what happened? By the time I reached high school I tried everything I could to prove I was Black and not an outcast. I secretly applied to Cornell University and any HBCU I could find information on and, to the dismay of my parents, I became pregnant in October of my senior year in high school. That pregnancy thrust me into a world of ‘poverty’ (relatively speaking). I did attend college and it was definitely a struggle. Which ultimately takes us into the next question of how poverty affects our career outlook.”
Or perhaps how poverty affects the way we like to look from the outside? “One of biggest differences I see between Black communities and other groups is the focus on what I call the ‘trappings of success,'” said marketing expert Melissa Harris Rohlfs of Rohlfs Group Public Relations. “For example, prioritizing a fancier car over paying cash for a necessity like a new washer and dryer. Money spent on clothes and jewelry rather than investing and saving.”
Keeping up with the Kardashians can keep you broke, but some experts say this need we have to look better than we’re doing fiscally has deep roots. “Women of color are raised in a competitive environment. We receive pressure from both our male counterparts as well as our European-born sisters to compete to get ahead in various areas of life,” branding coach Temica Gross, author of Live Victoriously–4 Easy Steps to Defeating Self Doubt said. “Careers, families, relationships, etc., we are always viewed as the second option when measured against others. Now, because of media, we believe all things luxurious and expensive are reflections of our wealth and status. Unfortunately, this is not true yet, women of color will still spend obscene amounts of money to keep up with the ‘Jones’.”
And that mindset, along with the wage gap and employment discrimination, has trapped Black women generation after generation. As a whole, the Black community does not often benefit from generational wealth passed down through the ages. Not even financial knowledge is passed down often time. In addition to lack of financial education comes the hardship of dealing with low-paying jobs. Even today, Black women still only earn 64 percent of what white men take home. “In 2010, single Black women’s median wealth, or income and assets minus obligations, was just $100, compared to single white women’s $41,500. Almost half had zero or negative wealth. Even though they participate in the workforce at elevated rates, they are stuck in low-paying work. They also experience high unemployment rates, with a 9.9 percent rate compared to 5.1 percent for white women,” Think Progress’ synopsis noted.
Higher rates of evictions for Black women also exacerbate the cycle of poverty. Harvard University sociologist Matthew Desmond studied this issue in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, and told the Huffington Post, “Eviction is fundamentally changing the face of poverty. One way we can interpret eviction is like, ‘Oh, it’s a result of irresponsibility, it’s bad spending habits.’ But if … you’re spending 80 percent of your income on rent, eviction is much more of an inevitability than an irresponsibility.”
Getting out of the cycle of poverty can be extremely difficult–but having your sista’s back would help. “It is difficult to break the cycle because you have to know somebody who knows somebody. Until Black women, en masse, sit in powerful seats the cycle will never be broken. Further, it must become a moral obligation to reach back and help. My philosophy is I work with the willing and love the rest,” explained Browne, who added that at the beginning of the year The National Council of Women launched “In Good Company,” a podcast and blog specifically for women at work that discusses career mobility as a way to help the next generation of women in the workplace.
Getting on the right track financially is a major step as well. This means curbing spending as much as possible. “I’m a prosperous Black woman. My household income is over $350,000. If you looked at me, you might not think I had as much money in the bank as I do. I shop at thrift stores. I reuse my Ziploc sandwich bags, I drive a used car. I bought it used with cash. I intend to drive it for 12-plus years. Then I’ll buy another one with cash,” shared Harris Rohlfs, whose spending habits have a lot to do with experiencing economic hardship as a child. “I came from nothing. Raised in single parent household in housing projects. Got my first job at 14.5 years to help out. Paid my own way through college. I remember my mom struggling with whether to pay rent or a light bill. We ate many nights because someone in our church congregation brought us food. Today, I live an amazing life. I travel around the world. Live in fabulous home. It wasn’t luck. I worked for it all. My first piece of advice is live like our great grandparents did. Get creative. Partner with other women to help.”
For many women, that means completely altering your mindset. “Stop falling into the consumerism trap the media and society promote,” added Harris Rohlfs. “Figure out your actual expenses, debt, income. Then live within your means. Be honest with yourself before purchases: Do you really need it? Can you borrow it? Are you shopping because you’re bored or your friends are buying one too. Or can you wait until it goes on sale? Reduce your transportation costs: Can you carpool? Can you use public transit or walk?”
You should also research ways to generate another income stream. “Can you sell something you don’t need? Can you get a side job? Can you do surveys online–that’s how I saved for Christmas gifts),” advised Harris Rohlfs.
In addition to he external factors Black women can change to improve their economic standing, there is some internal work that needs to be done first.”Get out of your own way,” said Harris Rohlfs. “If you want to get ahead, do so! You create your future. Stay informed and network; meet with strong-willed and successful entrepreneurs. Release that ‘lottery mentality’ of waiting on someone or something to happen before you take a stand. You’re playing small, but dreaming big. This isn’t the lottery; you can’t make it with just a dollar and a dream. You need to take action and you need to take it now.”