For Better and Worse

By Martin C. Evans and Lauren Terrazzano, Newsday, [2003]

It’s a paradox: Many black women are making gains while others fall behind.

THINGS ARE looking good for Gina Parker.

She is 33 years old, drives a high-priced import car, lives in a tony section of Nassau County and sends her 10-year-old daughter to private school and on trips to Europe. And, as the owner of her own employee placement company, she even is her own boss.

For the most part, she says, it appears that the future will be bright for her as a black woman on Long Island, as social impediments to her progress fall away.

Every day things are changing: I’m optimistic, said Parker. Black women will be accepted on the coattails of white women. The more people realize it’s OK to have business relationships with majority women, they’ll realize it’s OK to deal with women of color.

But things are not so bright for Annette Cummings, 32, a black single mother raising three young children in East Patchogue.

Forced from the relief rolls by the 1996 welfare reform, Cummings works 12 hours a day at two jobs—as a home-care worker and a clinical nurse’s assistant at University Hospital at Stony Brook—to take home about $350 per week.

I take one step at a time, Cummings said. Sometimes my kids run me crazy. . . It’s not easy.

The two personify the divergent, paradoxical futures of black women. Even while making dramatic gains in education and the ranks of skilled workers, professional and management jobs, black women are also the most likely group to show up in poverty and hunger statistics, and among single-parent households on public assistance.

It’s clear we’re seeing increasing levels of education and participation by black women in professional and higher level sectors of the workplace, said Bonnie Thornton Dill, professor of women’s studies at the University of Maryland. But we’re seeing a bifurcation, with those with education and skills doing better and those without doing worse.

Higher education is helping to push a small but fast-growing number of black women into the ranks of managers and professionals. Nationwide, the number of women in managerial/professional positions increased by 39.5 percent between 1989 and 1995 to 1.4 million, according to census department samplings, keeping them far ahead of black men at 1 million, and far outpacing the gains of white women.

Meanwhile, black women are beginning to climb the rungs of upward mobility as doctors and attorneys. Although only 776 law, medical, dental and other professional degrees were awarded to black women nationwide in 1977, 2,670 black women earned such degrees in 1995, part of an education trend that for black women points straight up. Nationwide, black women earn about 63 percent of all bachelor’s degrees awarded to blacks, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. In 1996, black women were almost twice as likely to earn a master’s degree as were black men.

But the trends are not all upward. Black women who work year-round, full-time reached rough pay parity with white women by the late 1970s. But since then, a pay gap has formed anew, leaving earnings among that group of black women about 10 percent behind their white counterparts, according to a report for the president’s advisory council on race; black men in that category, meanwhile, are making almost 20 percent less than white men.

Overall, median earnings for black women fell by 1.2 percent between 1990 and 1996, according to 1997 census data. And fewer than one in three black women executives said they were satisfied with their career advancement, according to a 1998 survey.

Perhaps most threatening to their upward mobility, black women disproportionally find themselves raising families without the help of a spouse. About one in three black families on Long Island is headed by single women who, without the financial assistance of partners, often slip down the economic ladder.

Black women who reach a position of middle class have to worry about family members and parents who are not as well off, said Diane Harriford, director of women studies at Vassar College. It’s not as if once you’re middle class black women you’re home free. I don’t think there is going to be any rest for black women in the 21st Century.

But as difficult as it will be for more educated black women, it will be much harder for black women lacking skills.

Although blacks make up about 8 percent of Long Islanders, black women make up about two-fifths of welfare clients in Nassau, and households headed by black women make up about one-fifth of Suffolk welfare households, according to a Newsday analysis of county welfare figures. And black women are represented in large numbers at Long Island’s food assistance networks, such as soup kitchens and food pantries. According to a 1997 study by the national group Second Harvest, in conjunction with the regional food bank Long Island Cares, 70 percent of clients were women, while 35 percent were black.

Black women continue to be statistically overrepresented in 1996 census poverty data as well: 31 percent of black women nationwide live below the poverty level, compared with 12.6 percent of white women.

There will be a larger portion of African-American women on public assistance until such time they are totally integrated educationally into society, said Jack O’Connell, executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, a nonprofit human service agency.

Since the advent of welfare reform in 1996, the welfare rolls have been cut across the board in Nassau and Suffolk, but the percentage of the rolls made up of black women has risen. Nevertheless, some women say the changes in welfare will lead to greater self reliance as women are forced to undergo job training, improve their skills and make it on their own.

We need ourselves to get where we want to be, not all this depending on this or that, said Cummings, who underwent job training that led to her two-job, 12-hour day, and now aspires to keep moving up the economic ladder. I just want us all to invest more in ourselves, feel better about ourselves, and teach that to our children.