Understanding hunger among African-American women

February 24, 2016
A mother and son prepare breakfast together. Photo courtesy of USDA.

By Marlysa Thomas, Bread for the World Institute

African-American children are disproportionately at risk of being born into hunger and poverty, and girls and women are at greater risk of staying there their whole life. We usually contextualize hunger and poverty by saying that women and children are the hardest hit. But why is this and what does it mean for women in communities that are already more likely to live below the poverty line?

We know from our Hunger and Poverty in the African-American Community Fact Sheet that African-American women face problems unique to being both part of a racially marginalized community and female. White women living in poverty are far less likely to be targeted by the criminal justice system, while African-American men are rarely affected by gender discrimination in pay or gender-based violence.

Women are paid less than men for the same work. This is true independently of the factors that we often believe are to blame for gaps in pay equity, such as women taking time off to raise families or choosing lower-paying professions. With a double burden of discrimination, African-American women earn less than white women and African-American men -- about 76 cents on the dollar.

Another part of the problem stems, not from this double burden per se, but from being more likely to live in communities with high rates of hunger, poverty, and the problems that often come with them – poorer health, less well-equipped schools, fewer job opportunities, and others. African-American women, like other people, do what they can to help when a family member has health problems, is incarcerated for a minor offense, or faces bias when trying to find and keep a job. And part of doing what they can often means over-extending their already limited resources, which may push many of them deeper into food-insecurity or poverty.

Institutionalized racial discrimination – not the failings of individuals—means that African-American men are more often financially or physically absent from their households. Women are often left to support children or grandchildren alone when the criminal justice system targets their partners, sons, or brothers, or when men die prematurely for lack of preventive health care. In other cases, men are kept away from their families because safety net programs penalize marriage.

All of these factors contribute to lower incomes, higher debt, and more financial stress on African-American female-headed households in particular. African-American women are nearly twice as likely to experience poverty as the overall African-American community (42.5 percent compared to 26 percent). In addition, their poverty rate is three times as high as that of the overall U.S. population (14.6 percent).

Since poverty rates are much higher and income levels are much lower among African-American female-headed households, we anticipate that female-headed households in the African-American community also have higher rates of food insecurity. About 35 percent of all female-headed households with children are food insecure, and we expect that the rate is higher among female-headed African- American households. But, as we see in the Hunger and Poverty in the African-American Community Fact Sheet, we do not have the data to confirm this.

The U.S. government needs to collect census data by race, gender, household status, and rates of food insecurity so that we have a clearer picture of food insecurity and hunger among African-American women and the children in their households. With this data in hand, we can better understand what supports and programs are most needed to enable these families to become food secure and free themselves from poverty.

Steps to dismantle structural racism in areas such as health care, employment, and criminal justice will help lift the heavy burdens currently on the shoulders of many African-American women. Steps to empower women – such as achieving pay equity and reducing gender-based violence – will help African-American women. But we need to collect data, as well as better understand and more effectively respond to the unique hardships of families burdened by both racism and sexism. Only by reaching those who are among the “hardest hit” can we hope to end food insecurity and hunger in the United States.

Marlysa Thomas is domestic advisor for policy and programs, specific populations, with Bread for the World Institute.

Steps to empower women – such as achieving pay equity and reducing gender-based violence – will help African-American women. 

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