Black Women Don't Have the Luxury of Staying Home

Julianne Malveaux | 4/26/2012, 3:23 p.m.

When Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said that Ann Romney had "never worked a day in her life," Romney behaved as if she had just hit the lottery. She smugly made the media rounds talking about how hard it was for her to raise her five sons. And she's right. Stay at home moms work extremely hard to cook, clean, run a shuttle for their children and their various activities, participate in school activities like "Room Mom" and "Cookie Mom." How do I know, having never had chick or child? A very dear friend, a Harvard-educated lawyer, has been mostly home with her children, one of whom is my godson, for the past decade or so, and it shows.

I digress. Hilary Rosen misspoke when she said Ann Romney had never worked. What she could have said is that Ann Romney never needed to work in the paid labor market. Even when Mitt Romney was in graduate school, they survived by living on the returns from their investments, according to them. So it isn't that Ann Romney never worked, it is simply that she was never forced to.

This entire conversation is a blast from the past, reminiscent of articles that I wrote in the 1980s. Even then this was a mostly white women's conversation since few black women have or are married to the kind of wealth that would allow them to stay home. Conservative stay home moms often say that people have to make sacrifices to stay at home, perhaps cutting out luxuries such as restaurant meals and extra clothing. But unless food is a luxury, there are black women who are in the labor market simply because they have no choice.

The official unemployment rate among African-Americans is 14 percent. The actual rate is more like 26 percent, and in many inner cities the black male unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent. This is a burden to African-American women who often don't have the economic assistance they need to raise a family. As a result of this burden, nearly 40 percent of African-American children live in poverty, too often supported by a single mom (more than 40 percent of African-American households are headed by women).

While there is a group of African-American stay-at-home moms called Mocha Moms, and there is little data to suggest the size of the African-American stay-at-home mom population, it is clear that historically, African-American women had no choice but work. I am not invoking ancient history when I reference the women who, as maids, were paid to take better care of their employer's children than they could possibly take of their own. And then they often paid, in part, with used clothes and leftover food substituting for cash.

Patriarchal tradition kept white women home while white men were paid a "family wage" that was, by definition, enough to support a whole family. Such patriarchal tradition was not economically present in the African-American community. Few African-American men were paid a family wage, but instead they were paid something akin to a subsistence wage. Women needed to work to help keep the family together.