A Woman's Worth

A recent study on "women of color, wealth, and America's future" found that while the median net worth (assets minus debts) of single white women is $41,500, the median net worth of single African-American women is only $100. Since black women are often the sole breadwinners in their households, this stark disparity calls attention to the tenuous economic status of black families across the United States. Wealth disparity for black women is aggravated by racism, classism, and sexism, according to Maya Rockeymoore, founder of Global Policy Solutions, a social policy consulting firm in Washington, D.C. In this interview with Sojourners Web editor Jeannie Choi, Rockeymoore describes barriers that have prevented black women from gaining wealth and suggests practical ways toward a more equitable future.

Jeannie Choi: Why do African-American women own significantly less wealth than any other social demographic in the United States?

Maya Rockeymoore: Black women live at the intersection of three confounding variables: racism, classism, and sexism. Historically, these variables have played a role in terms of who gets opportunities and who doesn’t; black women have had a hard time building assets in a way that can save themselves and their families.

The forebears of African-American women came to this country under a regime that enabled slavery. They were not able to earn a living wage for their work, and then they transitioned after slavery to Jim Crow, which left them unable to fully participate as equal citizens in society. So there is a legacy of significant poverty amongst African-American women and certainly a dearth of assets.

What public policies have had an adverse affect on African-American women? People point to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or the welfare program, as undermining the progress and the capacity of African-American women. Some have argued that TANF grows a culture of dependency and has not promoted asset-building or educational advancement. For a category of African-American women, those policies may have contributed to a certain form of stagnation. At the same time, those policies are critical for lower-income families who are in need of assistance.

One could argue that the policy design for TANF could have been better. Programs that promoted education in addition to work opportunities, programs that integrated asset-building policies, would have better strengthened the ability of lower-income women of color to improve their circumstances and become economically self-sufficient.

How do tax breaks for the wealthy negatively affect black women? For black women -- and I would argue for all middle-income, working-class people -- programs such as Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are important, but America does not have an endless source of wealth. We might be printing money now, but at some point the bill comes due. When you spend money for tax cuts for people who don't need it, eventually the argument is going to be made, and the policies put in place, that we can’t afford other things. And those other things that they're saying we can’t afford include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs that are important for working families. People don't realize, for example, that Social Security is a program that disproportionately benefits women. Women and their children are the majority of the recipients under Social Security. To the extent that policymakers seek to cut the deficit by cutting important social programs, then the economic security of African-American women will be undermined.

African-American women are often the breadwinners for their families. How does this affect their ability to gather and save wealth? African-American women are increasingly becoming the least likely to be married in our country, and so the whole notion of a two-income household has not been the case in the African-American community for some time now. African-American women want families, so they go ahead and have families, but because they are unmarried, they are actually the sole breadwinners. African-American women have to support their children and, often, their male partners. As a result, for many African-American women the question is, do I put life’s basic wants on hold -- the desire for a family and the desire for partnership -- simply because I'm not in an economic position to support everyone? Or do I move forward with life and struggle through it? And African-American women have been struggling through it for quite some time.

What is the best way for policies to solve problems as personal as when and under which circumstances to have a family? I think it's through education. As you well know, African Americans tend to attend schools that are the least likely to prepare them to get a post-secondary education. This undermines the advancement of African-American women from the outset. Policy can step in by strengthening the public school system; policy can step in by making sure that our high schools are designed to give people marketable skills, but also give people the ability to go on to college. Certainly affirmative action remains important; certainly programs that provide scholarships and other opportunities for financial aid are important for making that transition, because education becomes the key to a white-collar job. And if you don’t have a white-collar job, you’re less likely to have benefits such as health care, and you’re less likely to have benefits such as retirement or private pensions. The lack of these benefits undermines your life.

How does debt come into play in the life of disadvantaged African-American women? First of all, lower-income, low-wealth households tend not to have regular relationships with mainstream banking institutions. Many times they are reliant on payday lending and other such predatory institutions that have usurious rates. These institutions prey on lower-income populations by charging them more for banking services.

Furthermore, you can see the mortgage crisis targeting lower-income people with subprime loans that even higher-income people couldn’t pay because of the structure of those loans. Low-income people are targeted and exploited in so many ways that these programs strip what little wealth they have. There's also the issue of credit card debt. People get credit cards and try to make ends meet by using them and, lo and behold, with all the other obligations they have, they can’t meet the bill on time. These debts add up, and the next thing you know, you are either paying off bills forever from years past or you have messed-up credit and can no longer access credit in a way that can help build your assets and wealth.

What are solutions that you see on the horizon that can alleviate this wealth disparity and help African-American women build up assets? There are a number of solutions out there, and it is going to take multifaceted efforts to address this issue. First of all, we must protect our social insurance structure and protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We need to make sure those programs that are important for economic security remain in place. But we also need to make sure that we’re building protections for people, for example, who are in part-time employment. Part-time work tends not to come with the types of benefits or protections that are associated with full-time, white-collar work. So we need to be looking at how to make life better for people who are part-time workers.

People are also looking at creating "baby bonds" -- some call them child savings accounts -- that can help build assets for young people and provide a government match so that as they age, they actually are building wealth. Furthermore, micro-credit and micro-lending programs can also help African-American women build small businesses that will grow into thriving, larger businesses.

On a personal note, how does your own background and life story influence the work you do today? What gets me up every day to do the work that I do is that I come from a family of very modest means. On my mother’s side, I’m only the third generation from slavery. My parents picked cotton as children and lived in a small town -- Paducah, Texas -- where African Americans were segregated. They were segregated to separate education systems and public accommodations. Because my father was in the Air Force, we would live in places around the world where there was integration, but we would go back to Paducah, where there was still segregation. The black side of town actually had dirt roads and houses that were falling down. In fact, I remember my grandmother didn’t have a plumbing system until the late '70s. I saw the contrast and the disparities between other places around the world and my parents' hometown. I realized that political structures and policies are the driving factors in how people live their lives and the opportunities they have.

Is there any unique role that the faith community can play in helping to decrease this wealth and income gap? Yes. The faith community is perfectly positioned to educate its parishioners -- many of them are African-American women -- about a number of things, one of which is the importance of social insurance and Social Security. Churches are also well-positioned to help parishioners who may have gotten bad loans navigate the housing system in a way where they're not exploited, and to help them maintain the homes they have. Churches can also help build the capacity of their parishioners by providing classes that can help them transition to better job opportunities. Churches are essentially positioned to provide education and assistance in many areas where women and their families are challenged.

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"A Woman's Worth"
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