As the wealth gap in America widens, one group consistently finds itself at the bottom of the economic opportunity chasm. “On nearly every social indicator of well-being – from income and earnings to obesity and food security – Black women, girls and children in the rural South rank low or last.” So finds an eye-opening new study by the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative of Black Belt counties in Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
In Unequal Lives: The State of Black Women and Families in the Rural South, researchers examined poverty, income, employment, education, health, public infrastructure and housing in nine counties across the three states considered persistently poor, meaning at least 20 percent of the population has been impoverished for 30 consecutive years. What they found was alarming: Between 85 and 95 percent of African-American women in seven of those counties lived in poverty, with poverty rates of 56 to 60 percent in the other two. The unemployment rate for black women was four times higher than that of white women in the same counties, and those who did have jobs earned nearly a third less than white women.
The report’s author points out the lack of decent public infrastructure exacerbates the challenging economic situation by isolating rural communities andmaking it harder for residents to find and access jobs, school and medical care.
In rural Mississippi, for example, the study found only 59 percent of residents had Internet access-the lowest rate in America-and public transportation was extremely limited. The ongoing dearth of connectivity, vital services, higher education institutions and job opportunities has driven young people out of these communities and into urban areas, perpetuating a cycle of “brain drain.”
Through an array of initiatives, SRBWI addresses poverty and inequality in 77 rural Black Belt counties that are among the most neglected in the country. Its Young Women’s Leadership Institute connects participants with community projects and mentors. The Women in Agriculture and Alternative Economies Project supports entrepreneurship rooted in sustainable, cooperative agriculture and textile manufacturing. Its Human Rights Commissions increases civic engagement for rural, low-income women.
SRBWI has incubated several alternative-economy startups, generating income for hundreds of women, jobs for local youth and healthy food forcommunities. Among them are a regional sewing co-op, cultural tourism initiatives and an agricultural network connecting farmers with food hubs, schools and other markets. SRBWI worked with municipal leaders and community-based organizations to repurpose an abandoned school into a USDA-certified commercial kitchen to incubate worker-owned businesses.
The Initiative is making great strides toward a more equitable economic model in the Black Belt, but it can’t do it alone. While the findings in Unequal Lives are staggering, the report contains several specific recommendations for the rural South, including:
- Alternative enterprise development, job creation and training for low-income women and families in careers with opportunities for mobility
- Targeted investments and tax incentives for enterprises, place-based alternative economic development and worker-ownership models
- Early links to the labor market for young people in the rural South
- Expanded work supports, such as transportation, childcare and tax credits for low-income families as they work toward economic security
- Increased philanthropic investments in efforts to close gaps and remove barriers to equity and opportunity for low-income black women, girlsand families
- Improved public infrastructure – including reliable broadband and transportation systems-and tax incentives to attract supermarkets, financial institutions and businesses to high-need, rural communities
With persistence, collaboration, inclusive policies, and strategic public and private investment, the rural South can make real progress on persistent poverty and glaring inequality. In her introduction to Unequal Lives, SRBWI Cofounder Shirley Sherrod writes, “It is our hope that the report will spark a dialogue and open up conversations about how to create an economy and build communities that work for all citizens, including those living in the ruralSouth.”