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The Pressure of Being a Black Female Breadwinner

Being responsible for the family finances is a heavy load to carry, and the impact is even greater for Black women.

When I got married at 22, I never really considered who would be the breadwinner in my relationship. I had just graduated from college while my partner, who chose to forgo college, was already working. During the first few years of our marriage, my career and income quickly grew, outpacing his substantially. I never resented earning more than my partner, however, as time went on, I did feel more pressure to continue climbing the corporate ladder because I felt our ability to build wealth and ensure economic stability hinged on my ability to make even more money. We didn't have children but we both had familial obligations, often helping our siblings or parents financially. While I never put much thought into my role as the breadwinner, let alone the added pressure it put on me, it turns out that my experience wasn't all that unique. However, this kind of conversation wasn't taking place in my circle of influence.

"Black women aren't having these conversations enough," says Topsie VandenBosch, L.M.S.W., and an emotional intelligence coach, who works with female entrepreneurs and executives. "We don't talk about the struggles, the difficulties, the resentment, or the fear associated with being the breadwinner. There aren't many articles or resources online that discuss the difficulties of being the breadwinner, especially as a Black woman."

However, the lack of conversation does not mirror the reality, as Black women are in fact overwhelmingly the breadwinners in their families. In 2017, the Center for American Progress recorded that more than 84 percent of Black mothers were the primary, sole, or co-breadwinners for their families, compared to 62 percent for white mothers and 60 percent for Latina mothers. This emphasizes why Black women have a major impact on the financial health of their families, as well as the Black community as a whole. While it may be considered a privilege to have a higher earning potential than your partner, it also puts a lot of stress on Black women, especially as many are also the sole providers in their families, which oftentimes not only includes children but parents and extended family as well.

Being the top financial provider of their family can have a positive impact on Black women's self-esteem, explains VandenBosch. However, this role can also negatively impact self-esteem because of its high level of responsibility, which can lead to burnout, resentment, and perhaps wishing they didn't have to be the breadwinner, she says. "I don't think society has set Black women up for success when it comes to our psyche, our environment, our support systems, and even childcare," she adds. "It's a lot of responsibility to shoulder and then factoring in the pay disparity that Black women experience, it's an additional level of pressure."

Black women are not only shouldering the economic responsibilities of the household but are likely responsible for primary caretaker responsibilities and for juggling domestic tasks, such as grocery shopping, preparing meals, housekeeping, and laundry, among other errands. For Black women grappling with these heavy loads, they are estimated to spend as much as 41 percent of their annual income on medical and transportation expenses in comparison to white caregivers, who only spend an estimated 14 percent of their income on the same necessities, according toAmericanProgress.org. In short, Black women earn less yet spend more to provide for their families.

Topsie VandenBosch, L.M.S.W.

"We don't talk about the struggles, the difficulties, the resentment, or the fear associated with being the breadwinner."

— Topsie VandenBosch, L.M.S.W.

Additionally, just because Black women are the primary breadwinners in their households, doesn't necessarily mean that they hold high-paying positions with benefits, flexibility, and growth opportunities. In fact, a much higher percentage of Black women (29 percent, to be exact) work in service occupations, such as retail and food industry jobs, compared to white women at 20 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This often means lower wages and less access to paid leave and insurance benefits. Black women are also less likely to work in higher-paying management and professional roles than white women, at 36 percent and 45 percentrespectively, according to 2018 statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This demonstrates the lack of economic security for Black women.

Beyond the emotional toll that being the breadwinner takes on Black women, all of this ultimately impacts their ability to secure wealth for their families. In 2019, Black women made up more than 60 percent of the workforce, higher than white, Asian, and Latina women individually, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.But, that year, they stillonly made roughly 63 cents for every dollar earned by white men, while white women earned 78 cents for every dollar made by white men. Additionally, Black women have also been closing the gender and race pay gap at slower rates: From 1980 to 2015, white women narrowed the wage gap by 22 cents, while Black women only narrowed the gap by nine cents, according to Pew Research Center. (

More than 84% of Black mothers are the primary, sole, or co-breadwinners for their families, compared to 62% of white mothers and 62% of Latina mothers
Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong

This pay gap leads to a loss of more than $900,000 in earnings over the span of a 40-year career, according to the National Women's Law Center. This means they have less to invest in their own retirement plans and the stock market, two places where their white counterparts have historically and continually been able to build wealth and long-term financial security, according to AmericanProgress.org.

All of the above contributes to why the wealth gap between Black and white families has always been so disparate. In 2019, the wealth median for Black families in the U.S. was just $24,100 in comparison to $188,200 for white families, according to the Federal Reserve. While mean refers to the average net worth of a group, median net worth is the value that is right in the middle of those numbers, giving a more realistic view of a group's financial health. For single Black women, the wealth gaps are just as distinct. In 2013, the median wealth for single Black women without a bachelor's degree was $500, compared to $8,000 for white women with similar education, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. Even with college degrees, Black women still have less than half the wealth of white women without degrees. The gap only continues to widen with age. In fact, by the age of 60, the median wealth for single Black women is just $11,000 compared to $384,000 for white women, according to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation.

The wealth gap faced by Black women is due to a multitude of systemic inequalities, ranging from a long history of employment discrimination to redlining, the practice of refusing to insure mortgages to individuals in Black neighborhoods, as well as school segregation and mass incarceration, which has impacted the economic stability of Black families, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. And while there are many determinants that factor into wealth creation, income ability, and the fact that Black women typically shoulder the burden of supporting their families, certainly play a role, according to American Progress.

Topsie Vandenbosch, l.m.s.w.

"For single Black women, there's fear about what would happen to them if they lost their job or couldn't keep their livelihood, especially for those who have familiar responsibilities."

— Topsie Vandenbosch, l.m.s.w.

After leaving an 11-year marriage, I still found myself as the primary breadwinner, but, this time, as a single Black woman. Instead of feeling like I had less pressure on me, I felt even more weight on my shoulders. Although in many ways I feel privileged to have a good income and to be childless, it comes with a different set of fears. What if something happened to my ability to continue earning income? As a self-employed individual, I often find myself worried about retirement, savings, and my ability to continue producing enough income to take care of myself and provide for my family, if and when needed.

"For single Black women, there's fear about what would happen to them if they lost their job or couldn't keep their livelihood, especially for those who have familial responsibilities," says VandenBosch. "When you feel like you don't have anyone to lean on for financial support in an emergency, there can be an underlying sense of ongoing worry."

The intersection of race, gender, and economic status creates a unique set of circumstances that have an impact on the mental health and self-esteem of Black women. Unemployment rates, disparate health and medical treatments, and low incomes are factors that further exacerbate the impact on their mental health, according to research from Cambridge University. In a 2021 study completed by the American Psychological Association, researchers found that higher incomes lead to more positive emotions while lower incomes led to increased negative emotions. The lead researcher for the study, Eddie M.W. Tong, Ph.D., wrote, "The effects of income on our emotional well-being should not be underestimated. Having more money can inspire confidence and determination while earning less is associated with gloom and anxiety."

But despite all of this, Black women continue to rise above the challenges, making strides in both education and entrepreneurship. With 17 percent of Black women in the process of starting or running new businesses, compared to just 10 percent of white women and 15 percent of white men, Black women are among the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, according to the Harvard Business Review. Among Black students in higher education, Black women are earning 64.1 percent of bachelor's degrees, and 71.5 percent of master's degrees, according to the American Association of University Women.

To be clear, none of this means Black women don't need support within their role as breadwinners. Pay equity, raising the minimum wage, and providing resources such as access to child care, paid sick leave, and flexible scheduling can alleviate some of the pressure for Black women and families. These measures will not only reduce the economic burden for Black women but also improve their quality of life and mental health. (See: 4 Essential Mental Health Lessons Everyone Should Know, According to a Psychologist)

"Black women are becoming even more ambitious," says VandenBosch. "They are realizing that they can accomplish so much more than even their ancestors dreamed of. There's no rule book or guide and once you are thrust in it, it can feel isolating. That's why it's so important for Black women to be having these conversations with their therapists, partners, mentors, or even just with each other so that we can get the support we so desperately need." (

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