When Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney had “never worked a day in her life,” Romney behaved as if she had just hit the lottery. She smugly made the media rounds talking about how hard it was for her to raise her five sons.
And she’s right. Stay-at-home moms work extremely hard to cook, clean, run a shuttle for their children and their various activities, participate in school activities like “Room Mom” and “Cookie Mom.”
What Hilary Rosen could have said is that Ann Romney never needed to work in the paid labor market. Even when Mitt Romney was in graduate school, they survived by living on the returns from their investments, according to them. So it isn’t that Ann Romney never worked; it is simply that she was never forced to.
This entire conversation is a blast from the past, reminiscent of articles that I wrote in the 1980s. Even then this was a mostly White women’s’ conversation, since few Black women have or are married to the kind of wealth that would allow them to stay home. Unless food is a luxury, there are Black women who are in the labor market simply because they have no choice.
The official unemployment rate among African-Americans is 14 percent. The actual rate is more like 26 percent, and in many inner cities the Black male unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent. As a result, nearly 40 percent of African-American children live in poverty, too often supported by a single mom (more than 40 percent of African-American households are headed by women).
There is little data to suggest the size of the African-American stay-at-home mom population, it is clear that historically, African-American women had no choice but work. Black women as maids were paid to take better care of their employer’s children than they could possibly take of their own. And then they often paid in part with used clothes and leftover food substituting for cash.
Paid ‘family wage’
Patriarchal tradition kept White women home, while White men were paid a “family wage” that was, by definition, enough to support a whole family. Such patriarchal tradition was not economically present in the African-American community.
Few African-American men were paid a family wage, but instead something like a subsistence wage. Women needed to work to help keep the family together. Until the late 1980s, the labor force participation of African-American women exceeded that of White women, which means that proportionately more of us were working.
African-American women’s earnings often make the difference between poverty and comfort for their families. Even those African-American families who have been blessed with higher education and “good jobs” are well aware that African-Americans are “last hired, first fired.” Too many so-called middle class families are a paycheck or two away from poverty. Last time I checked, African-American households had only 2 percent of our nation’s wealth with few investment returns to live on when no one is working.
We working African-American women, stay-at-home or in the paid labor force, understand that “life for us ain’t been no crystal stair.” The labor market has never been a level playing field for us, and our salaries show it.
Julianne Malveaux is author of “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”