One of the recent news item on the childcare crisis (and why it has taken so long for politicians to acknowledge that reality) drew me into a conversation about societal attitudes towards women and how our who-will-stay-home and who-will-work expectations have varied throughout history based on race.
The conversation I had took issue with two statements I made:
The first was that in the US, there is a societal expectation that black women will work outside the home.
As Nina Banks notes in her essay on black women’s labor market history, “since the era of slavery, the dominant view of black women has been that they should be workers.”
And black women have worked. For as far back as labor force data are available, black women’s labor force participation rates in the US have always been higher than white women, regardless of their age, marital status, or the presence of children. According to Banks, 78 percent of black mothers with children are employed compared to just 66 percent of all other moms.
The expectation that black women would be employed is also reflected in black women’s exclusion from the earliest form of social welfare programs in the US, which were intended to allow women (white) whose husband was dead or disabled to remain at home to care for their children. Case workers denied black women eligibility based on the expectation that black women would be working outside of the home (their home mind you - working in someone else’s home, caring for white families, was not a problem).
And the expectation that black women will work can be seen in the demonization of black women in efforts to “reform” those same welfare programs starting in the 1960s to include work and training requirements for eligibility. Reagan’s “welfare queen” became emblematic of all that opponents said was wrong with US social welfare programs - that black women, who should be in the workforce, were at home having babies out of wedlock and scamming the system (even though white individuals make up the majority of welfare recipients).
And that was the second statement that conversation challenged: that the push for “welfare to work” was a reflection of the expectation that black women (and men) should be in the workforce.
Those who know me know I’m not really inclined to make statements such as these without data to back them up. So here are a couple of terrific references on black women’s labor force participation and the racial basis for the work requirements in welfare programs.
- Banks, N. (2019). Black women’s labor market history reveals deep-seated race and gender discrimination. Economic Policy Institute.
- Demby, G. (2019). The Mothers Who Fought to Reimagine Welfare. NPR
- Minoff, E. (2020) The Racist Roots of Work Requirements. Center for the Study of Social Policy.