science of us

What a Massive New Study on Income Inequality Misses About Black Women

Photo: Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last week, the New York Times published an effusive summary of a brand new working paper — meaning it is not yet peer-reviewed — from a team led by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau. It’s a massive study, one that tracked 20 million children born between 1978 and 1983, with a focus on income inequality. The headline-grabbing finding: Black boys from wealthy families tend to be poorer in adulthood than their white counterparts. It reads as definitive evidence of the cost of racism.

And yet how definitive can this report really be when it is so narrowly focused on black boys and men, effectively ignoring the story of income equality for black girls and women? What does this paper really say? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it overlook?

Briefly, here’s a rundown of the study’s findings. With 20 million children in the data set and the use of new data science techniques, researchers now have new possibilities for understanding the racialization of socioeconomic outcomes in American life. More specifically, the researchers are testing out methods that comb census and tax data, which seems to be a way of quantifying the income disparities between white men and everyone else.

And this is what led to the most basic claim of the study: Asian-Americans and Hispanics tend to have outcomes similar to white people, while black Americans and Native Americans do not. For example, black boys earn 10 percent less than white boys, even when they grow up in homes with similar household incomes. Black girls, on the other hand, apparently have the same outcome as (or even slightly better than) white girls. In the Times piece in particular, black girls and women are hardly more than a backdrop, with comments verging on, “They seem to be doing pretty well, even beating out white women sometimes!”

It’s easy to understand where this framing came from if you read the working paper: It’s an amplified version of how the researchers themselves present their work. The study’s analysis indicates that disparities relative to white men are particularly noticeable for black men and for all women, including black women. But rather than frame the results this way, the research team — which is made up of white men and Asian-American men — chose instead to compare black boys only to white boys and black girls only to white girls. In choosing this framing, they also make their conclusion almost foregone: Improve opportunities and outcomes for black men, and it will lift the entire black community to equality.

In other words, the idea seems to be that if black women are in partnerships with black men who earn as much as white men, black children — even black girls, who will go on to be paid less than white boys — will have a fair chance in society. But this only makes sense if you assume that all black women are straight, and that all will eventually marry men.

There are better ways to examine the economic lives of black women. For example, a black woman with some college education will make less money hourly than a white woman who has only graduated from high school. Meanwhile, a 2010 report indicates that single white women have a median wealth of $42,000, while black women only have a median of $100 to their names. Black women have to have an advanced degree before they can (on average) earn more than a white woman who only has a bachelor’s degree. These advanced degrees are associated with significantly higher levels of personal and household debt for black women as compared to black men, white women, and white men. Thus, black women are less likely to be pocketing those supposedly equal-to-white-women incomes. More broadly, before the age of 50, women of color have a median wealth of between $0 and $5.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Stanford scholar Ralph Richard Banks made many of these same points, commenting on how the study’s failure to truly reflect on black women damages the discourse about what changes are needed. “Black women may surpass their white counterparts in individual income, but they lag in household income. The men who would be their husbands are missing,” Banks writes. But this statement overlooks the fact that black gay, lesbian, and bisexual couples both exist and raise children.

This new report, and much of the media coverage around it, has implicitly suggested that black women are less valuable than men and that queer partnerships are less valuable than straight ones. Focusing on improving workplace opportunities for black men cannot be the only solution to socioeconomic disparities between black people and white people. Black women, too, must have equal pay — not to white women, but to white men.

Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein is a theoretical physicist at the University of Washington. 

What a Study on Income Inequality Misses About Black Women