Public discussions about the U.S. economic recovery fail to adequately portray the vastly uneven recovery that has been occurring since pandemic shutdowns began. Black women, who are pushed to the periphery of policymaking priorities, are among those whose experiences are most obscured by headline statistics.
The employment-to-population ratio (EPOP) of Black women in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54) in the past year is still 3.4 percentage points below their rate one year before the pandemic began, compared with 2.3 percentage points for all other women and 1.9 percentage points for white women. There are currently roughly 257,700 fewer employed prime-age Black women than a year before the pandemic. If Black women’s EPOP remained at their pre-pandemic level, there would over 312,500 more employed Black women due to population growth. Furthermore, the employment gap varies significantly across the country’s nine Census divisions. Black women in the Mountain, New England, and East North Central divisions suffer the biggest gaps in their employment ratios, ranging from an astonishing 10.7 percentage points in the Mountain division to 4.9 percentage points in the East North Central division.
Black women’s employment changes vary across the country
The seismic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the U.S. population have largely reinforced existing disparities across race, gender, and class in the labor market. This blog post examines Black women’s EPOP one year before the pandemic shutdowns began in the United States (March 2019–February 2020) compared with the past year of available data (December 2020–November 2021). I analyze EPOPs at the Census division level to assess how Black women have fared in different parts of the country, highlighting the importance of geography in understanding and addressing economic disparities. Geographic breakdowns of data are also helping to inform state policymaking, and given sample size concerns, the breakdown here is at the division level.
I focus on EPOP as a measure of labor market strength because the official unemployment rate misses people disconnected from the labor force. I focus on prime-age people because many young people are not in the labor force due to being in school and many older people are also not in the labor force because they are retired. Figure A below lays out the state breakdowns of the Census divisions, as well as EPOPs for Black women and all other women in the past year and one year preceding the pandemic.
In the year preceding the pandemic, 75.0% of Black women across the country were employed, compared with 71.6% for all other women. Figure B shows the change in EPOP for Black women and all other women. In terms of levels (see Figure A), Black women in New England had the highest EPOP at 79.6%. But during the pandemic, they continue to see one of the sharpest drops in employment: 6.4 percentage points in their EPOP in the past year compared with a year before the pandemic, translating to about 18,700 fewer employed Black women. In the East North Central division, Black women’s employment is also significantly below pre-pandemic levels—4.9 percentage points short, reflecting roughly 78,300 fewer employed Black women. The biggest percentage drop for Black women is observed in the Mountain division, although the small overall population of Black women in this division does not have a large influence on the national-level results. This sharp gap for Black women in the Mountain division seems driven primarily by a high unemployment rate of 13.9%, coupled with a drop in labor force participation.
Black women’s longstanding conditions in the labor market made them vulnerable to pandemic shocks
The combined and intersectional effects of racism and misogyny that Black women endure have significant effects on their labor market experiences. We know, for example, that Black workers generally face twice the unemployment rate of white workers, even in stronger labor markets, and they tend to be the last to recover from economic crises. This is in addition to the pay penalties and occupational segregation that Black women face. All these point to the fact that it is not particularly informative to look at headline employment statistics to assess how the workers most marginalized are faring as the pandemic continues.
Scholars like Nina Banks and Jeannette Wicks-Lim have long showcased that Black women have strong labor market attachment. They historically have higher labor force participation rates among women of the major racial groups, as well as among married women and mothers. The combination of this with Black women’s concentration in certain jobs has sharp ramifications during the current crisis. In their study of early job losses Black women faced during the pandemic, Michelle Holder, Janelle Jones, and Thomas Masterson detail that in February of 2020, nearly two-thirds of Black women were concentrated in merely five industries: health care and social services, educational services, retail trade, accommodation and food services, and public administration. Additionally, more than half of Black women in the labor market were concentrated in just five occupations: office and administrative support, health care support, sales and related, health care practitioner and technical, and management. This industrial and occupational segregation, driven by both racism and sexism, has sharp consequences with regards to the employment precarity Black women face.
Some of the industries and occupations Black women disproportionately work in, such as leisure and hospitality, are low-wage roles hit hardest by the pandemic and heavily vulnerable to COVID-19 restrictions and shutdowns. However, the other jobs Black women hold heavily that are deemed essential and provide some job loss insulation come with a set of challenges. First, these jobs, such as cashiers and registered nurses, are rarely performed remotely and come with particularly high COVID-19 exposure risks. Second, existing research such as by Valerie Wilson and Melat Kassa has shown that Black women essential workers are deeply underpaid, making 11% to 27% less than white men in jobs critical during the pandemic. These pay penalties occur in occupations where Black women are overrepresented relative to their share of the overall U.S. labor force, and in jobs where they outnumber white men.
These high-risk, low-reward jobs compound with longstanding racial health disparities, which have translated into higher rates of COVID-19 hospitalization and death for Black people and other people of color. To add to all these economic and health precarities, Black women, like many other women, shoulder disproportionate shares of unpaid care work in the form of child care, caring for loved ones, cooking, and other activities essential for daily life. These compounding factors during the pandemic imply a higher demand on Black women in caring for sick relatives and other household work on top of being put at greater risk themselves.
We must continue to prioritize an equitable recovery
Black women workers, and other workers disproportionately harmed by the COVID-induced crisis, still face a long way to go to recover from pandemic shocks. Confronting the racist and misogynistic structures that left Black women particularly vulnerable to the pandemic’s harm could take generations. However, policymakers have the power and tools at their disposal right now to make choices that would support better outcomes. State and local officials should prioritize the needs of these workers who are most affected in their usage of federal funds. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) and other federal grants to state and local governments ought to be used to bolster employment, ensure workplace safety, close barriers to access for vital social insurance programs, continue a robust and publicly supported testing, vaccination, and booster outreach program, and provide financial support to working families through programs like expanded unemployment insurance benefits.