August 18, 1998
Economy Helps Raise Income of Single Black Women With Children
By STEVEN A. HOLMES
HARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three years ago, Nancy Wright was struggling to hold body and soul and two children together on the $237 she received in her monthly welfare check, supplemented by $187 worth of food stamps.
These days, Ms. Wright, 35, is earning almost $1,400 a month as a supervisor at a fiberglass plant. Though hardly affluent, she can afford to take her children out for a night on the town. She has bought a car, and she just returned with her two sons from a week's vacation in Atlantic City and New York -- the first time she had left North Carolina.
The New York Times
"I'm able to buy them clothes and school supples," she said, rattling off the benefits of her new-found prosperity. "I can take them out to get something to eat or go to the movies. I've accomplished a whole lot since I started working."
Ms. Wright's brightening fortunes are part of a little-noticed phenomenon among single black female heads of households. Long at the bottom of the economic scale, these women have seen their income rise sharply in recent years, pushed by a strong economy, tight labor market, increases in the minimum wage, more stringent welfare eligibility requirements and government training programs.
In 1996, the latest year for which complete data are available, the median income for this group was $15,530, a jump of more than 21 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from the $12,765 the women brought home in 1993, according to Census Bureau data.
Labor Department figures for single black female heads of families, a slightly different category because it includes only women with children, show a similar increase in income, rising to $16,256 in 1996 from $13,489 in 1993.
Incomes for these women are rising faster than nearly any other demographic group in the country, in part because they are starting from such a low base. The median income for white households (including married, living alone, or single parent) is $47,023. And a median income of $15,000 still leaves single black female heads of households squarely in the ranks of the working poor. But the increases come after two decades when their income barely increased or even declined. From 1969 to 1993, their medium income fell by more than 4 percent.
The fact that their income is improving is a sign of how much the benefits of the economic recovery are cascading down to groups on lower rungs of the economic ladder.
"They're doing much better than they have in years," said Edward Montgomery, chief economist at the Labor Department.
One reason is the recent increases in the minimum wage, which rose to $4.75 from $4.25 in 1996 and rose again to $5.15 last September. Economists say the bulk of single black mothers are hourly workers, so an increase in the minimum wage helped boost their income.
But even without a federally mandated increase in the hourly minimum wage, these women would still be benefiting from the strong economy, which is especially robust here in Charlotte, where the unemployment is less than 3 percent.
With such a strong economy, Labor Department data show that incomes at the bottom of the wage scale have begun to rise even more sharply than those at the top, seemingly reversing decades of rising income inequality.
"It's too early to call it a trend in terms of reversing income inequality," said Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. "But there is no question we are heading in a positive direction."
In addition to being pulled into the job market by rising wages, many of these women are being pushed there by efforts to reform the welfare system. In 1995 North Carolina received waivers from the Clinton Administration allowing it to require welfare beneficiaries to undergo job training. A year later, the state received permission to set a two-year time limit for a family to receive cash assistance and to decline to raise welfare payments if a recipient had another child 10 months after going on the rolls.
Since the changes, North Carolina's welfare rolls have dropped to 65,873 families this past June, from 113,485 in June 1995. Because about 65 percent of the families on welfare in the state are black, in 1995 and this year, and because about 60,000 people who have left the rolls have gotten jobs, single black mothers have been major beneficiaries of the policy changes.
Ms. Herman also said that new Labor Department studies show that 1.7 million people nationally were working last year who were on welfare in 1996, though she did not say how many of these people were unmarried black females who are heads of households.
For some, like Sherry Thomas, government training programs made a huge difference. Divorced in 1992, on welfare and living in public housing two years later, Ms. Thomas re-entered the work force through the Job Training partnership Act. The program paid her tuition at a junior college, covered the day care costs for her three children and paid her rent.
"Definitely that was my bridge to standing on my own and not having to continually depend on the system," she said.
Today, two years after subsisting on $278 a month from Aid to Families with Dependent Children and another $350 in food stamps, Ms. Thomas is a computer programmer, earning "in the $30,000 range." She has also started a business designing Web sites and has bought a four-bedroom split-level house.
Rather than worrying about addicts and gunfire outside her door, she now savors the crepe myrtles bursting with pink flowers in her front yard, and the two apple trees, their branches heavy with fruit growing out back.
"I still have bills and everything, but I'm raising my kids in a better environment, which is something I always wanted to do."
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