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Black Women Best: Economics Has a Diversity Problem, And Here’s How It Affects Everyone

A couple of years ago, I attended a luncheon at a large economics conference hosted by the American Economic Association. After taking my seat, they announced that the program would begin soon, and the high table filed in. As they walked in, one after the other, something seemed off, and then it hit me — not a single one of the panelists was Black. 

Naturally, I scanned the room to see if I could find any Black people at all. There were maybe three. Imagine sitting in a room with hundreds of experts and not seeing yourself. It makes you second guess whether you really belong or if you even have what it takes. 

When you don’t have proper representation in any industry, those underrepresented groups are going to suffer, and eventually, so will everyone else.

I remember the first time I came across the field of economics, which is about how communities, individuals, and companies maximize limited resources. I had just changed my major to math after spending the last two years struggling through biology concepts. I was in a microeconomics class when my teacher introduced the idea of human capital – the skills, knowledge, and experience of an individual or population. My teacher explained that this concept is what fuels our education system and determines whether or not people get jobs. It was at that moment that I realized the power that economics holds over not just society as a whole, but also our day-to-day lives. 

As it turns out, economists have been answering questions that shape our world for centuries. In 2008, economists were responsible for making the important decision on whether the government should bail out big banks to save the economy. It’s a decision that Black and Brown communities are still recovering from today, as the racial wealth gap widens.

The problem is, when you don’t have proper representation in any industry, those underrepresented groups are going to suffer, and eventually, so will everyone else. And that’s especially true in our economy where the majority of experts are 40 shades of beige. Economics has a diversity problem, and it impacts everyone.

The perfect storm was brewing. And it led to a decade-long recession that cost millions of households and individuals their financial stability for generations.

For example, right before the 2008 financial crisis, Black and Brown communities were already being targeted by lenders who were charging high-interest rates on loans and houses were already being foreclosed. Within these communities, there were early warning signs of what was to come for everybody else. But Black and Brown economists paying attention to these trends were largely excluded from conversations about the U.S. economy at the time. As William Spriggs, an economist at Howard University said in a statement, “If the Fed had noticed in the latter half of 2007 that Latino and African American unemployment rates were rising, it might have understood a significant problem was on the horizon.”

In other words, the perfect storm was brewing. And it led to a decade-long recession that cost millions of households and individuals their financial stability for generations, making it even harder for us to achieve an inclusive economy that works for all.  An inclusive economy means that everyone, regardless of demographic or socioeconomic background, has access to economic opportunity and financial freedom

“Black Women Best”

Janelle Jones, Managing Director of Groundwork Collective, coined the phrase Black Women Best.” It’s the idea that if Black women, the most marginalized group in the economy, had access to financial freedom and economic opportunity, then everyone else would, too.

This is how “Black Women Best” works. It gives us a more complete picture of how things really are so that we can make better decisions for our economy — and for Black women.

In other words, if we make the economy better for those who are suffering most, it stands to reason that those efforts would safeguard everyone else, too. And by including Black women in the economic picture, we have a clearer idea of what our economy looks like, which allows us to make better decisions about it. As Kendra Bozarth of the Roosevelt Institute has put it, “If Black women…can one day thrive in the economy, then it must finally be working for everyone.”

Currently, the economy has not been “Black women best.” Here are some examples of that:

  • The gender pay gap: The gap is wider for Black women than white women or women on average. It takes women 15 months to make what white men make in a year, but it takes Black women 19 months to earn the same — that’s a big difference. If we focused on closing the gap for Black women, it would benefit those for whom the gap is narrower.
  • The 2008 financial crisis: Black women were hardest hit by the Great Recession. They lost the highest share of jobs as compared to other women. And during the recovery, while the media reported more jobs and lower unemployment rates — which was true for some groups — it was not true for Black women, whose unemployment rate increased 2.1 percent during the recovery. Perhaps if we took this seriously, and included Black women in the full economic picture, we could have prioritized policies that would have made the job market stronger than it appeared to be, as we enter another recession.
  • COVID-19: Currently, Black women are more likely to be worried about money or fired from their jobs due to the pandemic, according to LeanIn.org. And as the Centers For Disease Control reports, “current data suggest a disproportionate burden of illness and death among racial and ethnic minority groups.” The financial burden will be greater, too. Vox reports that “White unemployment hit 16 percent in April and Black unemployment hit 20 percent…not only are black workers more likely to get laid off, but black-owned businesses are among the most likely to get hit by extended closures demanded by controlling the public health crisis.” If we don’t take these statistics seriously, we have a myopic view of our economy. Making decisions and enacting policy based on a fuzzy snapshot won’t actually solve the problem. 

This is how “Black Women Best” works. It gives us a more complete picture of how things really are so that we can make better decisions for our economy — and for Black women.

The next economic crisis, brought to you by COVID19, is already here and set to be the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Despite this, many of the policies aimed at putting money in people’s pockets ignore the idea of “Black women Best.” 

For example, the majority of Americans say the stimulus check is not enough to cover basic living necessities, like rent. And what group faces the most challenges when it comes to rent? Black women. Recently, economists decided to expand funding for small businesses. As of right now, only 12 percent of the businesses that received the funding were minority-owned. And what group makes up the largest share of minority women entrepreneurs in the U.S.? Black women.  If Black consumers and entrepreneurs aren’t getting the help they need, that’s less stimulation for the economy.  

We were missing from important spaces and conversations that inevitably shaped our lives.

Right at this very moment, the fact that those who are making decisions about our livelihoods are largely white and male is hurting everyone. Last year, Dr. Lisa Cook, a professor at Michigan State University, and I co-wrote a New York Times op-ed about the lasting implications of Black women being absent from economics and related fields. As we reported, “Last year, Janet Yellen, the former head of the Federal Reserve Board, argued that a lack of diversity among economists was a liability for the profession because it could lead to a myopic sense of the most pressing problems and the most relevant solutions. ‘Women and men have significantly different approaches and views on public policy issues,’ she said, ‘which means that women’s voices and those of minorities need to be heard.’”

We are making small steps toward progress, and since 2018, I’ve served as the CEO and co-founder of the Sadie Collective, a non-profit organization that addresses the pathway and pipeline problem for Black women in economics, finance, data science, and policy. 

Our power is in the fact that the organization embodies the premise of “F.U.B.U.”, for us and by us. We are a team of young Black women that provides a larger network of nearly 400 Black women, students, and professionals, with a network of resources, institutions, and professional relationships. What we are best known for is our sold-out annual conferences that take place in Washington D.C. each year. In fact, our conferences have been the only times in history where Black women in economics and related fields convene. What inspired The Sadie Collective’s creation was the same realization that I came to during that luncheon: We were missing from important spaces and conversations that inevitably shaped our lives.

What I hope I’ve made clear is that we all bear the cost of Black women being absent among decision-makers who have tremendous power over our national and global economy. The policies that put money in your pocket — or don’t — are largely decided by people who do not care about the economic agency of everyone, but especially Black women. If we want to achieve an inclusive economy that works for all, Black women must have visibility in all things from money to policy to economics. And that begins with us having a seat at the table. 

Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is an emerging researcher, entrepreneur, and author hailing from Ghana and Maryland. She recently completed a fellowship at Harvard University as a Research Scholar in Economics with an appointment at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She graduated from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a B.A. in Mathematics and a minor in Economics as a Meyerhoff/MARC U*STAR Scholar. She is best known for her work with The Sadie Collective, which she co-founded with Fanta Traore. The Collective’s work has been featured by several media outlets, recently The New York Times, NPR, The Economist, and Wall Street Journal. Currently, she is represented by Leila Campoli at Stonesong Press LLC, a literary agency based in New York City.

Image via Pexels

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