What Does Five Dollars Mean to Black Women?

What can you buy for five dollars?  What if five dollars was all that stood between you and hunger and homelessness?   Five dollars is not a safety net; it’s barely a bag of chips.  Yet according to a study reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it is the median net worth of single Black women.

Single white women in the prime of their working years (ages 36 to 49) have a median wealth of $42,600. That’s still only 61 percent of their single white male counterparts, but married or cohabiting Black women are lower still, with a net worth of $31,500.

In other words, Black women continue to exist in a perilous economic state whether they are cohabitating or single. Instead of fixating on the marital status of Black women–a common media topic–we need to focus on the way that sexism and racism combine to form the basis of oppression.

Black men have a history of suggesting gender conformity, in the guise of racial uplift, that serves to oppress Black women. For example, comedian Steve Harvey wrote Act like a Lady and Think like a Man last year in the hopes of teaching Black women how to repair and hold onto relationships.  The book is dependent upon many essentialist notions regarding gender to sell its point.

Following in Harvey’s footsteps, Jimi Izrael, a columnist for The Root, released his book The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can’t Find a Good Black Man this February. At The Root, Izrael wrote the following:

Eligible Black men, we think, can have their pick of educated Black women (assuming they even date Black women), as if merely having a job, an education and a pulse makes a woman ‘wife material.’ While there may be a lot of women available to Black men, MOST are not women you would want to spend your life with. I’m twice divorced, currently single and not taking applications because no qualified applicants have come down the pike. They are mostly variations on a few themes.

Responding to the report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Black Lunatic had this to say:

There is a notation that the median income for a married woman, or co-habitating woman, is about $31,000, so that’s proof that stable relationships improve finances. All I can offer is the idea that first step has to be increasing the number of folks getting and staying married.

It is hardly surprising that Black men would use this study as yet another excuse to inform Black women that marriage is what’s best, when they have invested so much time and effort in publicly supporting the institution in their recent writings.  Of course, the fact that marriage increases the work load of women is not factored into their benevolent suggestions.  This is hardly an unbiased suggestion.  If we were to settle and be understanding, in the manner that Black men have suggested, we would be in an even more precarious position.

Black men and the mainstream media have been on a mission to inform Black women that our major concern is our personal relationships, or lack thereof. However, married or single, clearly Black women need to be concerned about the economic disparity we face. If during our peak earning potential years we seriously lag behind White men–the barometer by which success has traditionally been measured–it stands to reason that such disparity will carry into our senior years when we are far more vulnerable.

The high achieving Black woman has become the identity that has been much favored by the Black male patriarchy and the media; however, our labor is highly concentrated in low-wage work. According to the Fairness Initiative on Low-Wage Work, women make up 60 percent of the low wage workforce; however, African American women make up 35.8 percent of that figure, compared to 26.2 percent being White. Combine low wages with the responsibility of raising children and we can’t possibly be surprised that the economic future for Black women is as bleak as it is.

Marriage cannot be the solution for women because it is an institution based not on agency or empowerment but on oppression.  Even in its modern manifestation, where women are no longer legally considered to be the property of their husband and fathers, the division of labor insures that gender equality is still a dream.  Women perform most of the domestic chores, child-rearing and elder care, yet this institution is magically supposed to provide protection in the public sphere? It is specifically because work that is done within the home continues to be unpaid that women remain economically impoverished.

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it was suggested that Black women turn to the government to encourage real investment in our economic success.  We have proven through centuries of hard work and sacrifice that our contributions are essential to the success of the nation, and it is time for the government to offer some good-faith return. It is not a handout and not welfare, because without the unpaid labor of Black women the U.S. would not be the world power that it is. If we must gather on the steps of the capitol to make ourselves heard or write long entreaties in the cause of justice, no other objective should be allowed to supplant the drive for economic justice. And until Black women are able to achieve economic parity, we are not far removed from the plantation kitchen.

Learn more about this topic in this week’s How We’re Doing: Women and Wealth

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