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Black Women Living in Poverty and Tiredness, can the US Census help?

In 1964 at the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party Convention, Fannie Lou Hamer said, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired . . . Now, I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Even though these words were distinctively about Southern racism, I find myself unconsciously gravitating to these words to talk about the US census and black female poverty. I know this is Women’s Her-story month and for the last three weeks I’ve paid tribute to black women healers, black Sisterfriends, and sex workers, but today I want to change the tone and talk about black female poverty, being tired & overworked, and the US census.

So, every ten years we say, Be Counted . . . Take the Census in the hope that sheer raw numbers will change the many problems brown and black communities face. We believe that if only the federal government know we are here—the Negro people . . . yes that’s what they call us—that perhaps they will allot more resources to our often improvised and over populated communities. We believe that numbers will change some things. We believe numbers will make the crooked places straight as the old folks say. We believe because sometimes all we have is our belief. And let’s be clear, numbers can change some things. Just, pick any major social movement within the last 50 years to see the impact of numbers. However, when it comes to ending the poverty and overworked realities of black women, numbers (i.e. The Census) alone are not enough.

They cannot close the racial wealth gap. According to Race Wire:

  • Single Black women (across all ages, from age 18 to 64) have a median wealth of $100 and single Latinas have a median wealth of $120. Single white women clock in at $41,000.
  • Almost half of all Black women and Latinas have zero wealth or negative wealth. That is, their debts exceed their assets.
  • Young women (aged 18 to 35) of all races have a median wealth of zero.
  • And even though white women (from 36 to 49 years old) have a median wealth of $42,600, women of color in the same age bracket have a median wealth valued at $5.
  • Women of color 65 and older are least likely to receive retirement income from pensions or other assets.

They cannot bring Juanita Goggins—first black woman elected to South Carolina Legislature in 1974— back to life who spent her life seeking to end radical injustices, but who dies alone wrapped in several layers of clothing to keep the literal and metaphorical cold away. She lay dead in her house for over a week. In some ways, her story brings to mind the death of Zora Neale Hurston who also died in poverty and alone. Why do our black mothers who blaze such revolutionary trails often die in poverty and alone? Of course, the response to this question is another blog entirely, but it’s a good question to ask.

Well, back to the top at hand. Numbers alone cannot ease the burdens of being at intersection of many identities. Numbers cannot solve the poverty and tiredness black women experience. And the reason why I know numbers cannot change these realities is that each ten years we take the same census and say, “We are here,” and nothing changes. Poverty stays. Daycare prices rise. Unemployment doubles. Congressional Black Caucus members continue to be incumbents and steal from their constituents. Black women can be killed and stored in a house and know one wonders where they are. Nothing changes.

But who knows, perhaps this Census will be different from past decades . . . “I am sick and I am tired.”