“It Fell on Me to Help Everybody”: Financial Precariousness and Costs of Upward Social Mobility among Black Middle-Class Women
Tina K. Sacks, Whitney A. Sewell, Antonia E. Asher, and Darrell Hudson
The well-being of Black middle-class women has come to represent an important benchmark in the economic and social standing of Black people as a whole. However, Black middle-class women still struggle with race and gender discrimination, economic uncertainty, and other socioeconomic strains. Based on focus groups with Black women in St. Louis, Missouri, this article explores upward social mobility among this group, including how they try to reach the middle class and remain there, contend with financial precarity, and navigate predominantly White spaces. We find across all three focus groups and age ranges that the women reported multidimensional financial stressors including: (1) feeling they could not meet all of their financial responsibilities (e.g., mortgage/rent, student loans, utility bills); and (2) feeling responsible to share relatively limited financial resources with family and friends. Second, the women in this study described the challenges they faced working in predominately White environments, notably experiences of anti-Black sexism, which truncated their career advancement and earnings. Moreover, many respondents took on the role of financial provider as young adults as they pursued their own education, which made it more difficult for them to finish school and cement their own careers. The study suggests that as Black women continue to strive for upward mobility by obtaining more education and moving into more lucrative jobs, they also provide financial support to their families and by extension, to the Black community as a whole. However, their financial responsibilities, and potential discrimination in the labor market, may limit their own economic security.
Black middle-class women; financial precarity; upward mobility; financial strain
The well-being of Black middle-class women has come to represent an important benchmark in the economic and social standing of Black people as a whole. Black women have often served as anchors of the Black community, activists for social justice, and upholders of the Black family. However, Black middle-class women still struggle with race and gender discrimination, economic uncertainty, and other socioeconomic strains. In spite of their simultaneous vulnerability and relative privilege compared to poor Black people, the experiences of Black American women who are not poor are often overlooked in social science research. This article explores how Black middle-class women in the United States try to reach the middle class and remain there, including how they contend with financial precarity and navigate predominantly White spaces (particularly at work). We find that Black middle-class women often provide financial support to members of their immediate and extended families, which contributes to their own economic insecurity. Black women’s lower compensation and tenuous foothold on careers that would ensure their middle-class status compound their financial vulnerability.
Black–White Socioeconomic Heterogeneity
There is significant heterogeneity in socioeconomic status (SES), largely because there are substantial differences between the typical Black and White middle-class households (Braveman et al. 2005; Landry and Marsh 2011). Notably, there is a persistent, deeply entrenched Black–White wealth gap that is due to historical legacies of discriminatory actions, such as exclusion from New Deal–era policies, including the G.I. Bill, as well as redlining practices that have resulted in high levels of racial residential segregation throughout the United States today (Katznelson 2005; Rothstein 2017). Scholars estimate that the average Black American household possesses approximately six to eight cents of wealth compared to every dollar of wealth held by the average White American household (Darity et al. 2018; Shapiro 2017). The effects of the racial/ethnic wealth gap are difficult to overstate, affecting a broad range of social, economic, and health outcomes (Chetty et al. 2018; Shanks 2007; Shapiro 2017). The lack of wealth among Black Americans means that the financial position of the Black middle class is much more tenuous compared to the White middle class (Conley 2010; Oliver and Shapiro 2013; Shapiro 2004).
Wealth functions in a substantially different manner compared to other socioeconomic indicators such as income and education. For example, income is less stable and more likely to fluctuate over the life course than wealth, due to disability or older age, as well as macroeconomic changes, such as increased globalization and advances in technology, which imperil employment (Keister and Moller 2000; Sherraden 2018). Wealth, on the other hand, is more stable, represents a more accurate, long-term picture of economic status than income, and affects people across generations (Keister and Moller 2000; Oliver and Shapiro 2013; Shapiro 2004). Critically, wealth helps families absorb economic shocks such as unemployment as well as broader economic downturns in addition to providing key capital to assist families during transition periods over the life course such as purchasing a home, attending college, or having children (Conley 2010; Oliver and Shapiro 2013; Shanks 2007). Wealth also plays a pivotal role in determining the social context in which children live by providing access to neighborhoods with greater levels and quality of resources such as school quality and perceptions of neighborhood safety (Charles 2003; Williams and Collins 2001; Williams and Mohammed 2013). Therefore, wealth is regarded as one of the strongest predictors of children’s future life chances, including educational quality and attainment, earnings, and occupational status (Conley 2010).
Wealth inequities also mean that Black Americans who achieve middle-class status often do so because of their own efforts (Landry and Marsh 2011). Higginbotham described this phenomenon as “child-secured mobility” (Higginbotham 2001). She found that Black women who came from working-class families were often strongly encouraged to achieve lofty educational professional goals but left to navigate the pathway to upward social mobility on their own. Without a secure financial background, Higginbotham’s middle-class respondents who came from working-class backgrounds reported immense pressure to succeed, often sacrificing social engagement, and were sometimes brought into adult affairs such as strategizing to stretch family budgets or working part-time to provide additional income to the family.
In addition to the tremendous Black–White wealth gap, the effects of racial residential segregation are manifest in differences in educational quality, as measured by classroom size and teacher experience (Johnson and Schoeni 2011; Walsemann et al. 2008; Williams and Collins 2001). Due to widespread racial residential segregation, the schools that African Americans attend are often largely composed of poor students that are unequal to predominantly White schools (Walsemann et al. 2013; Williams and Collins 2001; Williams and Williams-Morris 2000). This inequity is manifest in poorer educational preparation and development of marketable skills for African American students (Walsemann et al. 2008; Williams 2003).
Further, Black Americans’ access to social and professional networks is impacted by both racial residential segregation as well as poorer educational access. Differences in the composition of social networks and social capital (e.g., informational support, job recommendations) continue to affect Black Americans over the life course (Hardaway and McLoyd 2009). Access to networks is not just a factor that affects middle-class people, as scholars have highlighted how critical social capital is to working-class and poor people (Lareau 2011; Smith 2000, 2007).
Due to limited opportunities to enter and advance within private sector employment, researchers have noted that Black Americans are overrepresented in the public sector, working at various levels of government (Cooper et al. 2012; Wilson and Roscigno 2010; Wilson et al. 1999). Historically, the public sector has shown greater commitment to providing opportunities to Black Americans due to equal opportunity and affirmative action policies (Cooper et al., 2012). However, public sector jobs can be vulnerable due to macroeconomic changes, such as the Great Recession, which forced states and local governments to make dramatic budget cuts, eliminating thousands of jobs throughout the country (Cooper et al. 2012; Wilson et al. 1999). The cuts, in turn, disproportionately affected Black Americans and women.
These differences in socioeconomic resources have significant effects on the well-being of Black Americans. For example, Colen and colleagues conducted an analysis of racial disparities in health between middle-class African Americans and White Americans (Colen et al. 2018). Using data from the Panel Survey of Income Dynamics (PSID), they investigated whether race, or more precisely racism, undermined the health-promoting benefits associated with SES. They specifically examined whether middle-class African Americans received fewer health returns for upward social mobility relative to White people. They also interrogated how SES fluctuations over the life course influenced health status (Colen et al. 2018). White Americans reported significantly higher household incomes and years of education than African Americans. Even among a sample of middle-class African Americans and White Americans, White Americans reported significantly higher household incomes than African Americans. African Americans (47 percent) reported that they were more likely to have grown up poor in childhood compared to White Americans (31 percent), indicating that middle-class African Americans were more likely to engage in upward social mobility, relative to their childhood, in order to achieve middle-class status. The authors concluded that the health returns for higher levels of SES among African Americans are lower than among White Americans (Colen et al. 2018). Considering that African Americans were more likely to have engaged in upward social mobility in order to achieve middle-class status, these findings also indicate that there are different returns on human capital investments—such as attending college, professional school, and graduate school—among African Americans.
Costs of Upward Social Mobility Among Black Americans
In addition to the financial precariousness of the Black middle class, Black Americans face diminished returns on human capital investments. In other words, they are compensated at lower levels, even when they have skills, education, credentials, and experience levels that are commensurate with their White counterparts (Wilson and Roscigno 2010; Wingfield and Alston 2012). Williams (2003) contends that the discrepancy in returns on human capital investment, compared to White people, is a unique source of stress and alienation for African Americans. Respondents in qualitative investigations of upwardly mobile African Americans also express feelings of anger, hurt, disappointment, and even rage as they struggle against glass ceilings in their careers or compare their success to their White peers and coworkers (Feagin and McKinney 2005). In other cases, scholars have documented that middle-class Black Americans encounter hostile White Americans who may directly challenge their competence or who work to make them feel isolated and unwelcome (Cose 1993; Feagin and McKinney 2005).
Due to the high levels of racial residential segregation in most American communities, the process of upward social mobility often requires that middle-class Black Americans must cross deeply entrenched racial boundaries into spaces that are predominately White (Higginbotham 2001; Sellers 2001). Previous studies indicate that Black Americans with greater levels of SES are more likely to report exposure to racial discrimination than Black people with lower levels of SES (Assari and Caldwell 2018; Assari and Lankarani 2018; Hudson et al. 2012).
Scholars have documented the strategies that middle-class Black Americans have developed in order to operate in predominantly White spaces. Lacy (2007) found that middle-class Black Americans expend considerable energy to fit well within predominantly White settings, constructing “public identities” to signal their class position to White people and mitigate potential discriminatory experiences in public settings including educational, workplace, and retail settings. Lacy (2007:73) defined public identities as “purposeful, instrumental strategies that either reduce the probability of discrimination or curtail the extent of discrimination they face in public interactions with Whites.” Lacy’s respondents described broader efforts to signal social class and establish commonalities with White people in public spaces, labeling these strategies as “script switching.” This included using certain diction, wearing certain clothing, and discussing palatable topics when interacting with White people. According to Lacy (2007), Black middle-class people reported that they perceived that White people stereotyped them as poor. Her participants described the specific deployment of cultural capital, including language, mannerisms, clothing, and credentials, which allowed them to create public identities that mitigate potential discriminatory treatment. Respondents simultaneously sought to disassociate themselves with negative stereotypes about Black people while also finding common ground with White people. Lacy (2007) notes, however, that the invocation of a public identity is a deliberate, conscious act—one that entails psychological costs and rewards.
Specifically, the continual enactment of a public self can be exhausting, and its perceived need can be infuriating (Feagin and Sikes 1994; Lacy 2007). The implementation of these strategies may take a psychological and physical toll on upwardly mobile African Americans. The accumulation of these efforts could be manifest in Colen et al.’s (2018) findings that “rising tides do not lift all boats.” In other words, middle-class Black Americans still have poorer health status relative to middle-class White Americans.
In addition to navigating racism in predominantly White spaces, Black people pay other costs to achieve upward social mobility. Due to mobility, both socially and physically, middle-class Black Americans often reside further away from the social networks of origin that may have provided salubrious social support. In her ethnographic study, Lareau (2011) reported that middle-class Black Americans had less frequent contact with members of their extended family and lived further away from them. Colen and colleagues (2006) found that African American children who were born into homes with their grandmothers had more favorable birth outcomes than homes without a grandmother present. Additionally, Colen et al. (2006) conclude that as African American women begin to achieve upward social mobility, they may be less likely to rely on their mothers for support during their pregnancy or for assistance with child-rearing responsibilities after the baby is born. These findings suggest that African Americans of higher SES may not have adequate access to social support networks that can help navigate stressful situations.
While economic privilege may provide security and well-being to upwardly mobile Black Americans, it is often accompanied by some guilt and grief with respect to those left behind in poverty. For upwardly mobile Black Americans, strides toward social and economic success can represent leaving behind loved ones and family members (Cole and Omari 2003). Heflin and Pattillo (2002) found that middle-class Black Americans are highly likely to have low-income siblings and that middle-class African Americans incorporate the SES of their extended families into their own conceptions of class standing. Higginbotham and Weber (1992) interviewed a sample of 200 working- and middle-class African American and White women to understand whether they felt responsible for members of their social networks. They asked women the following: “Generally, do you feel you owe a lot for the help given to you by your family and relatives?” The authors reported that while many White women were confused by the nature of the question, most African American women responded affirmatively, stating a desire to give back to their families. Higginbotham and Weber’s (1992) study findings demonstrate that middle-class Black women maintain strong links to their social support networks.
These efforts and perceived responsibilities are not limited to individual social networks. In Black on the Block, Pattillo (2007) described a neighborhood in Chicago undergoing gentrification by middle- and upper-income African Americans. In her ethnographic study, she observed that because middle-class Black Americans possess greater levels of social capital, including connections with the predominantly White economic and political power, they acted as brokers to advocate for the needs of a predominantly African American neighborhood such as improved neighborhood safety and better schools (Pattillo 2007).
Costs of Upward Mobility Among Black Women
Scholars have noted Black men and women have different intrafamilial and community responsibilities and pressure from social networks (Hill 2002). These differences may be instilled during childhood through familiar socialization in addition to broader hegemonic norms about gender roles (Brown et al. 2009; Varner and Mandara 2013). Researchers have observed that Black women often express an obligation to help others, and for those who are upwardly mobile, this manifests in a desire to financially support their families, even if they do not have enough themselves (Higginbotham 2001; Woods-Giscombé 2010). This desire to provide support stems from upwardly mobile Black women feeling indebted to their families who may have sacrificed so that their daughters would end up better off (Higginbotham and Weber 1992). For example, Woods-Giscombé (2010) noted that middle-class Black women find it difficult to say no to requests for support from members of their social networks and become overwhelmed with balancing additional roles and responsibilities.
Often these women find themselves providing both financial and social support to their communities. Higginbotham’s (2001) investigation of middle-class Black women revealed that Black families socialized girls and young women to simultaneously contradict negative stereotypes while also cultivating an activist role striving and encouraging high levels of achievement and excellence. Higginbotham (2001) described these pressures to balance serving as a source of resistance, defying stereotypes, and achieving excellence while navigating predominantly White spaces as the costs of being racial pioneers.
Despite the additional pressures placed on Black women to provide financial and social capital to their broader social networks, in addition to striving for educational and professional excellence, Black women often do not receive adequate support nor recognition for their efforts (Hall et al. 2012). In 2018, Black women were compensated at 65.3 percent of White men’s earnings and 89 percent of Black men’s earnings with only Hispanic women being compensated at lower rates (Hegewisch and Hartmann 2019). Yet, Black middle-class women feel pressure and responsibility to provide financial capital to their social networks.
For example, Higginbotham (2001) observed that Black women worked exceedingly hard to present themselves as confident and strong, externally, no matter how stressed or uncomfortable they may be internally. Her respondents commented that they felt that they must be perfect, with little margin for error, due to the pressures they felt to succeed in addition to the roles they played in their social networks. However, they could not express their struggles to meet these expectations. In cases where they encountered racism in various settings, particularly educational and workplace environments, women reported that they had to control their anger so they would avoid reifying negative stereotypes. In cases where they confronted offensive individuals, it often meant engaging a person with authority such as a teacher, coworker, or supervisor. Thus, they felt that they lacked options and agency (Higginbotham 2001).
STUDY RATIONALE AND OBJECTIVES
Taken together, the financial instability that middle-class Black women often face, along with the pressure on them to provide various types of support to their social networks, represents a series of unique, stressful circumstances. In addition to these stressors, middle-class Black women may lack access to social support as they navigate predominantly White spaces (Mullings 2002, 2005). Other scholars have argued that Black women are socialized to embody strength and stoicism in the face of adversity (Woods-Giscombé 2010). The exploration of these phenomena is necessary to understand the toll of multiple roles, identities, and stressors that middle-class Black women experience.
Considering middle-class Black Americans are more likely to work and live in racially integrated, often predominantly White settings, they must frequently navigate contemporary racism (Assari and Caldwell 2018; Feagin and Sikes 1994; Hudson et al. 2016; Lacy 2007; Sacks 2019). While findings from previous studies indicate that middle-class Black people are more likely to be exposed to racial discrimination compared to working-class and poor Black people (Assari and Caldwell 2018; Hudson et al. 2012, 2016), we know relatively little about how Black middle-class women are affected by discrimination. We know even less about how middle-class Black women experience striving for upward social mobility. Nor do we know how they manage the intrafamilial and community expectations that may arise as they acquire additional socioeconomic resources. As such, the purpose of the study was to examine: (1) stress related to perceived racism and discrimination; (2) high-effort coping styles that are exacerbated by the pressure to attain and maintain a middle-class lifestyle; and (3) stress of class “uplift” and strains within social networks. Although, we also collected focus group data from Black middle-class men, we report findings from the women alone to better understand how race, class, and gender operate among this group.
St. Louis, Missouri was chosen as the data collection locale because it is an important site in the United States’ recent racial history. Specifically, the tragic shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri (a border suburb of St. Louis), ignited a tinderbox and helped to galvanize the Black Lives Matter movement across the country. In 2015, in the aftermath of his death and the subsequent uprising throughout St. Louis, the U.S. Justice Department conducted a civil rights investigation that found that Ferguson policing practices were unjust and damaged community trust. The report revealed that Black people comprised 67 percent of the population, and yet they made up 85 percent of the vehicle stops and 90 percent of individuals who received tickets.
Further, similar to national household income data, in 2017, the median household income of the St. Louis metropolitan area was $61,571, yet among White households it was $68,494 compared to only $33,343 among Black households. In addition, the median household income in the United States is $62,626. White households had a median of $66,413, while Black households had a median of $40,324 (U.S. Census Bureau 2017). This large disparity in median income suggests that Black people in St. Louis may have an even more tenuous hold on middle-class status than their counterparts around the country.
Lastly, in addition to the unique context of Ferguson, there is relatively little research on the lived experience of Black middle-class people in midsize cities like St. Louis. Much of the research on the Black middle class has been conducted in cities with large Black middle-class populations such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., New York, and Chicago. However, much less research has been conducted on the Black middle class outside of these settings.
Data Collection and Recruitment
Focus groups were used as the primary data collection method for the study. Focus groups are useful for gleaning contrasting views of subgroups as well as determining which views are common across groups (Morgan and Krueger 1998). Women were included in the study if they identified as African American or Black, were 24 years or older, and completed college. While other social class indicators such as income and wealth are important, education provided the most accessible screening tool for recruitment. For example, in our pretesting of the study protocol, potential participants indicated that they did not know their wealth, indicated by net worth or net financial assets, offhand. Furthermore, education may be a better indicator of social class than income as education could reflect tastes, such as leisure time activities, styles of dress, and dining preferences. We recruited through electronic distribution of flyers to various organizations such as Greek-lettered sororities and fraternities, as well as social media posts and word of mouth. Potential participants called the study coordinator, who determined eligibility and scheduled participants for a focus group over the telephone. The focus groups were held in a well-known community agency in St. Louis.
The research assistants welcomed participants, reviewed the informed consent process, and answered questions about the study. Focus group questions included the following: Describe some of the economic stressors that you experience. How would you describe your responsibility to people in your network, community, extended family? Who do you turn to for support? Participants also completed a 39-item demographic survey, including household income, level of education, marital status, home ownership status, etc. On average, the survey took 15 minutes to complete.
The focus groups were led by the first author (Sacks), a Black woman, with the support of a graduate research assistant who took detailed notes. Focus group sessions lasted an average of 90 minutes. Each session was audio-recorded and professionally transcribed. Participants provided verbal and written consent for participation prior to the start of the focus groups. Each participant was provided $50 in cash. The Institutional Review Board at Washington University in St. Louis approved this study.
Table 1. Study Sample
Focus Group Composition
Overall, twenty college-educated, non-Hispanic Black women participated in three focus groups comprised of six to eight participants in each group (two focus groups were comprised of seven women while one group was comprised of six). The overall mean age was 33 years of age (range=24–59). All participants had completed college, and 10 of the women reported that they had graduate or professional degrees. Examining subjective social class, five participants considered themselves upper middle class, eight respondents identified themselves as middle class, six reported that they were lower middle class, and one respondent identified herself as lower class.
Group 1. There were seven respondents in the first focus group, and the average age was 36. There were three women with college degrees and four women with graduate/professional degrees. Five participants considered themselves middle class while one considered herself upper middle class and another reported that she was lower middle class. Six participants reported that they were currently employed while one indicated that she was a full-time student. There were three single women, two married/partnered women, and two divorced women in the first group. With regard to household size, two women reported household sizes of two, three reported a single-person household, one woman reported a household of three, and one woman reported four people in her household. Three respondents reported household incomes of $80,000 or more while three reported incomes in the $40,000 to $55,000 range. One woman reported a household income in the $55,000 to $80,000 range. Five respondents in this group reported wealth over $10,000, one respondent reported less than $10,000, and one respondent did not know.
Group 2. In the second group, there were seven participants, and the average age was 29. Three respondents reported that they held college degrees while four had completed graduate or professional school. Looking at subjective social class, two women considered themselves middle class, four identified themselves as lower middle class, and one reported that she was upper middle class. Six women reported that they were employed full-time while one reported that she was employed part-time. Six women indicated that they were single while one reported that she was currently separated. Four women reported single-person households, two women reported two people in their households, and one woman reported three people in her household. There were two women who reported household incomes less than $40,000, four women who reported incomes between $40,000 and $55,000, and one woman who reported her income between $55,000 and $80,000. Four women reported that they had greater than $10,000 in assets while three reported that they had less than $10,000 in wealth.
Group 3. In the third group of six participants, the average age of women was 39. All six indicated that they were currently employed full-time. Four women indicated that they had completed college while two held graduate/professional degrees. Three women identified themselves as upper middle class, and one woman each reported that they were lower middle class, middle class, and lower class, respectively. Four women reported household incomes between $55,000 and $80,000. One woman reported earning $80,000 or more, and another reported less than $40,000. Two women reported that they were single, one woman was divorced, and three were married. Four women in this group reported households composed of two people, and two women reported that three women lived in their households. Two women reported assets over $10,000, two women indicated that they had less than $10,000 in assets, one woman did not know, and one woman refused to answer.
The study followed the general theoretical assumptions of grounded theory as outlined by Charmaz (2006). Charmaz’s constructivist approach advocates the use of sensitizing concepts, which provide conceptual grounding while remaining open to emergent themes. As such, the study relied on an inductive approach to analyzing the data. Three analysts used sensitizing concepts gleaned from empirical research on the Black middle class to develop the focus group questions and to guide subsequent data analysis. First, the analysts reviewed the transcripts against the audio-recordings to ensure accuracy. Second, the analysts met several times as a group to discuss their preliminary sets of codes and memos (margin notes that summarize emergent analytic themes). Analysts then identified text segments, coded those segments, and sorted them to identify higher-order themes (Morgan and Krueger 1998). To increase agreement between the coders, they attempted to develop consensus about the meaning of text (Creswell and Poth 2017). Agreement was based on whether the general passage was understood the same way, not whether the exact same words were highlighted (Creswell and Poth 2017). The team met again to decide on which themes represented higher-order concepts. Once a final list of codes was developed, analysts independently coded the transcripts and met once again to reach consensus on how the codes were applied. Analysts coded the transcripts independently using NVivo software (NVivo 12 2018). NVivo was used to manage and sort the data, which facilitated the comparison of themes across and within focus groups.
The focus groups yielded two major findings that characterized Black middle-class women’s experiences of upward social mobility. First, across all three focus groups and age ranges, the women reported multidimensional financial stressors including: (1) feeling they could not meet all of their financial responsibilities (e.g., mortgage/rent, student loans, utility bills); and (2) feeling responsible to share relatively limited financial resources with their extended families and friends. Second, the women in this study described the challenges they faced working in predominately White environments, notably experiences of anti-Black sexism, which truncated their career advancement and earnings. These findings add to a growing body of literature that documents the unique challenges associated with upward social mobility that Black women face (Higginbotham 2001; Woods-Giscombé 2010).
“It Could Change So Fast”: Debt and Financial Precarity Among Black Middle-Class Women
Across all three focus groups, which included women ranging in age from 24 to 59, financial precariousness and the strains that come along with it emerged as a major theme. This is in contrast to the dominant narrative that suggests being Black and middle class provides a respite from financial insecurity and social ills. Focus group respondents noted that while some of them had relatively high incomes (e.g., $80,000 or more), they were often in a cycle of debt that was stressful. For many women, their debt was related to pursuing higher education, a strong cultural value in the Black community. Although many Black people strive to secure a college education and beyond, because of the relative lack of Black family wealth, Black college graduates are often saddled with significant educational debt (Addo et al. 2016). The debt then compounds the challenges Black women face in the labor market securing jobs that enable them to live comfortably while paying off the debt. One respondent described her situation,
I have a bachelor’s in health science, but I have $51,000.00 in debt from that. So now I’m trying to go on to get my bachelor’s in the science of nursing. Now I have this debt and that’s more debt to add on to that. And in the time being, I’m working this job that’s not really in my field. So I’m making like $11.85. I have my own place. I’m trying to pay for school. Then I got to pay for these loans. Then I got to pay bills. (Regina, 28, social worker, single, graduate degree, $40,000–$55,000)
For Regina, having a bachelor’s degree was not enough to secure a position in her chosen field, so she was forced to take a less lucrative job. She noted that she made less than $12 an hour, and even in relatively inexpensive St. Louis, she found it difficult to pay for housing, ongoing education, and her educational debt. Although this respondent is putatively middle class based on her educational status, her income is not commensurate with the amount of debt she took on to get her bachelor’s degree.
Many respondents echoed these sentiments and stated that student loans had left them in difficult financial circumstances. Simone, a 31-year-old married graduate student, noted how difficult it was to manage debt: “But in the mirror, it’s like—you know? It’s always been difficult. Like, I don’t own property. I’m in debt, student loans, car loans, and then with me not working and the financial problems, like, we’re just further and further into debt.” Simone’s experience illustrates the wealth gap described previously. She does not own property, and as such she does not have access to the largest wealth generator in the United States, homeownership. She also has student and consumer debt, which makes it more difficult to secure a home loan. All told, her financial situation is likely better than the working poor, but she is in a very difficult financial situation, constraining her opportunities for upward social mobility.
Lisa, a 32-year-old woman in a committed partnership and employed in human resources, lamented that in spite of her best efforts, her debt made it nearly impossible to get ahead: “I feel like I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. I work hard. I shouldn’t have to give up the things I want to do just so that student loans can be paid and that I can meet some ever shifting needle.”
Other respondents noted that far from feeling a sense of security as a member of the Black middle class, their financial position was better characterized as precarious: “But you feel like it could change so fast. Like, if I lost my job tomorrow, I would no longer be middle class, I would be, like, poor, because I don’t have anything saved, I don’t have anything to fall back on. It would be, like, grim,” said Erin, 43, divorced, and employed in management.
Renee, a 59-year-old divorced nurse, recalled the Great Recession of 2008, noting that she heard about White people who lost large sums of money and decided to jump off buildings. She described the tenuous nature of her financial situation, described her own financial downturn, and noted that while White people may jump off the building, “we fall off the cliff.” She went on to say that she believed that Black women are survivors.
Another woman remarked that although she worked hard she had nothing to show for it:
So it’s like I’m working to pay these bills, and at the end of the month, I don’t have what I feel like I should have or anything to show for it. So then it’s like I want to go to Jamaica this weekend, so I’m just gonna put it on the credit card bill. So it’s an endless cycle, but I’ve kind of gotten to the point where it doesn’t stress me as much as it does, but it’s one of those things where I make poor choices because I feel like I’m working too hard not to have something to show for it. (Amanda, 29, single, government employee)
Taken together, the experiences described by the women in this study suggest that although they are middle class, their financial reality is tenuous at best. Many respondents expressed great frustration with the fact that their efforts to better themselves through education had left them in debt but without the greater earning potential they had expected. Because Black women receive roughly two-thirds the compensation of White men (Hegewisch and Hartmann 2019), one must consider how gender and race discrimination suppress their labor market opportunities and earnings.
“It Fell on Me to Help Everybody”: Helping Family, Hurting Themselves
Like I said, it’s just a burden because I feel like I can’t say no. And it’s like you have like a wrench in your back. You want to say no; but it’s like if you say it, it’s going to hurt them and you don’t want them to go without. So it’s like I’ve taken many loss[es] and gone without in order for them to have.
Amanda, a 29-year-old single woman with a graduate degree and employed by the government, describes the burden and responsibility she feels to provide financial support to her family. Using the metaphor of a wrench in her back, Amanda acknowledges that helping her family requires her to take many (financial) losses to support her family. Several focus group respondents reported having similar conflicts. In fact, like Amanda, they had a tenuous grasp on middle-class status, often as a result of acquiring higher education and student loan debt, but felt responsible for members of their family who may have been in worse financial circumstances. As a result, the women were often called upon to share their resources with both immediate and extended family. There was lively discussion of this topic across all three focus groups, with some respondents expressing that it was their responsibility to provide financial resources (and other forms of social support and social capital).
Many respondents who became financially responsible for their families did so relatively young, often as college students. For example, Amanda noted that beginning in her college years, she assumed some financial responsibility for her family:
It’s like you’re thinking the man is going to assume his position, but he didn’t. So my mom couldn’t get it [referring to child support] from my second oldest sibling, which is my sister. She has two children. So it fell on me to help everybody.
Here Amanda describes having to step in to the stereotypical male gender role of “financial provider.” Many women in the focus groups described similar experiences in which their own mothers and fathers were unable to support the family, leaving Amanda and others like her to fill that void.
Once Amanda was in the role of provider, her financial circumstances became more difficult. She explains:
And when I come of age, I’m thinking everything’s going to be hunky-dory because they’ve already been there. So I was the first one to actually go off from high school straight to college. And when I came home, I had just lost my dad. So I had to come home. I didn’t want to. I had an apartment in Columbia. So I was like, okay. It was cheaper there. Why not just stay there? It was like $300.00. I had to move back here, it’s $500.00.
Although Amanda seemingly did all the right things by pursuing a college education right after high school, she disrupted her own educational trajectory to come back to St. Louis, and to a more expensive housing market than she had in Columbia, Missouri, a less expensive college town. Her experience illustrates an unseen challenge of being Black and middle class in that for many Black families, there are fewer socioeconomic resources, and those resources must be spread across more people. In Amanda’s case, she filled the financial void left by her father’s death and by the fact that her sister’s father was not paying child support. She felt responsible to make these sacrifices for her family, but ultimately she described the experience as burdensome.
Like Amanda, Kyla’s financial responsibilities began during her college years. Kyla, a single, 31-year-old marketing professional, noted that even as an undergraduate student she was financially responsible for her family:
For a long time I was taking care of—in undergrad I was taking care of my mom. She lost her job. So it was my mom, my younger sister, my younger brother. My brother was in college. So the car he had broke down. I spent $3,000.00. I drained my savings and myself, and I did that constantly.
Although Kyla was also financially and socially vulnerable as a college student without the means to support herself, she provided for members of her immediate family, including her mother and younger siblings. Her status as a student did not shield her from rather hefty family responsibilities, which included regular financial support and bailing the family out of emergencies like paying for her brother’s car repairs. Interesting, although both Kyla and her brother were college students at the time, only Kyla was expected to provide for the rest of family. Kyla does not elaborate on the reasons she fulfilled the role of the financial provider, but one may speculate that in certain instances Black women, as opposed to Black men, are believed to be the “responsible” ones in the family. As a result, Kyla labored through college supporting three family members.
It is also important to note how financial instability in one generation of a Black family cascades into subsequent generations. Although Kyla and her brother were in college, pursuing the surest path to middle-class status, their mother’s job loss thrust Kyla into the role of financial provider. Kyla was then in the position of draining her own savings to provide for her brother. These situations certainly compound already existing wealth disparities among Black and White families in the United States.
Another respondent, Regina, a 28-year-old single woman employed as a social worker, described the challenges of having to care for her extended family when her sister was unable to raise her own daughter. She noted:
I was like she’s one of my kids. You know, I was up top, you know, money, living good, and her car got in an accident or her car failed. I’m like saving, saving, savings gone. My niece lives here, and so if something happens, I can’t call her mother for help because she has less than I have. So it’s like it’s on me. So I’ve depleted my savings because of my niece. I’ve racked the credit card debt because of my niece.
Although Regina was initially on solid financial footing, caring for her niece required her to spend her savings and incur more credit card debt. Like many respondents, her experience illustrates the financial and intrafamilial challenges that Black middle-class women endure. Similar to the family financial challenges Amanda and Kyla faced, Regina’s sister was unable to care for her daughter, leaving Regina in a difficult financial and interpersonal position. Regina noted that she felt as though her niece was her own child and therefore was compelled to care for her, which ultimately required her to incur credit card debt and burn through her savings.
Aja, a 27-year-old single woman employed in the service sector, described another dimension of the financial and familial responsibilities faced by many focus group respondents. Before going off to college, Aja was responsible for managing her mother’s medical care, including coordinating and administering her medications. Although her mother had many adult siblings, Aja’s family left the responsibility to her even as she tried to pursue higher education. Aja remarked:
Like I got cussed out the day that I left for undergrad because all of my mom’s sisters didn’t want to take care of [her] and I was the only one who knew—she had six sisters. Well, she had five sisters at the time, and I was the only one who knew all of her medications and all of these things.
At a young age, Aja, like Kyla, ultimately became responsible, financially and otherwise, for her family members. She described how she decided to forego her own education at the time to pay for that of her sister’s.
So instead of going back to school, I told her that she could finish undergrad and get her master’s degree and that I would work and support her and my mother in whatever they needed so that she could achieve her goals.
Aja later noted that she supported many people in her family:
I am the provider in my family. So I take care of my mother and my younger sister and, for a while, my father and my sister and her son. So like my stress financially isn’t because I can’t provide for myself. It’s because I have to provide for other people that I didn’t create necessarily.
Aja spoke proudly about what she had done for her family. However, she acknowledged that it was challenging to provide material and financial support to people who were not her own children. She also noted that she had to put many of her own wishes on hold to provide for her family.
Because of the taxing nature of the support that women were asked to provide, some women described that they had grown weary of constant requests for money, which they began to decline as they grew older. This sentiment sparked debate within groups as older women argued that younger women should learn to say no to requests for financial assistance from family early on while younger women in the groups noted how important it was for them to give back to people who invested in them and helped them to achieve their current social status. For example, Erin, a 43-year-old divorced woman who reported that she held a professional degree and a household income greater than $80,000, stated that while some family and friends ask her for money, she makes it uncomfortable for them to do so in an effort to discourage additional requests in the future. For example, she stated: “If you’re brave enough to come to me to ask me for something, you have to get it verbally from me every time, or don’t come and ask me for money.” She went on to say, “my nephews know not to come to me. I’m not gonna be that aunt. I’m not gonna be that aunt.”
Traci, a 38-year-old married woman employed in management, stated the following about pressure to support people in her social network:
If you were to call me maybe ten years ago, I struggled with it. I was—if I picked up the phone, if you needed this, okay, I would put it in your bank account tomorrow. If you need that, I’ll do this and I’ll do that. Probably in the last—I’m going to say last four years when I had my own child, now it’s, ‘No. I don’t have it. I’ll see. You all need to budget your money better.’ ’Cause at this point, you know, I’m looking out for my own child. I’m building her future.
Taken together, the women’s experiences illustrate many challenges Black families face. First, upward social mobility often comes at a heavy price. Black women may incur significant educational debt in an effort to reach the middle class and earn more money, which may ultimately be shared with family members. Because Black women are more likely to be in a family with siblings who have lower incomes, familial resources are stretched across many people, which may hinder Black women’s prospects for upward mobility. However, in spite of the strain of educational debt and providing for their families, many Black women felt it was their responsibility to care for others in spite of the financial consequences to themselves.
Black and Female in the Workplace: Navigating Discrimination and Isolation
I could care less how much you get paid if you’re a White man, I know I’m going to sell myself—you know, it’s that battle. You know, because I know you’re already getting $40,000.00 more than me. I need to sell myself. It’s always that game… everyone who is a woman and educated, Black, everyone has a financial gap. (Erin, 43, divorced, businesswoman)
Given the extensive financial responsibilities many respondents described, the work environment in which Black women find themselves provides important context for their challenges. For example, Erin, a businesswoman in her 40s, quipped that all Black women experience a shortfall between what they earn and what they are worth. She sarcastically opined that she could not feign concern for how much money White men earned because she already knew she was grossly underpaid relative to them. Her sarcasm and frustration with how gender and race discrimination suppresses Black women’s wages was echoed across the focus groups.
Kim, a single, 32-year-old engineer who reported earning greater than $80,000 a year, noted that while her status as a Black woman in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field made her an unusually valuable asset to her employer, she still was not paid commensurate with her ability:
Because at my company, right, I’m the triple standard. I’m a Black woman who’s technical, who’s an engineer. That hasn’t necessarily given me more money—I know that, because we know statistically, they want me to feel like the unicorn. But unicorns is only so glamorous, and so I can’t afford to take a trip that I wanna take.
In Kim’s case, although she is in the lucrative STEM field, she is still not paid enough to take a vacation. Certainly, not being able to take a vacation should not be equated with the inability to meet basic needs like food or shelter. Still, one may expect that a person who has an education and works in a highly lucrative field, should be compensated sufficiently to take a vacation. Moreover, Kim described the social isolation she faced as one of only a few Black people, particularly Black women, at work: “ I don’t have any allyship at work, but I do think, I recognize the importance of making work a decent place to be, so I create enough of a relationship where at least we have a baseline of respect.”
Kim went on to describe how isolated she was at work:
I’m the only Black person in that room, doing the work that I’m doing. And so this comment slips out, and they feel comfortable saying it, but they also don’t recognize that someone who has a direct, adverse feeling towards that is right behind them. So I literally say, “What?” like, “What’s that?” out loud, because that’s my defense, but I also recognize I’m the only Black—I’m the youngest, I’m a Black woman sitting in this role. I’m not a manager. I’m here as an assistant to the director, so it’s not like I have weight, anyway.
Given that Black middle-class people are more likely than lower-income Black people to experience a sense of social isolation and racial discrimination in predominately White spaces, the women’s discomfort with “being the only one” is not surprising. For example, research on gender and race in the workplace theorizes that women and racial minorities experience token stress and social rejection, which may cause frustration, anger, and a sense of hypervisibility in the organization (Cose 1993; Kanter 2008). For example, in Kanter’s seminal book on gender and work, she notes tokenism occurs among individuals who have readily detectable attributes (such as race and gender) and whose proportional representation in the group is less than 15 percent (Kanter 2008). Kanter also found that the experience of being tokenized increased the pressure to perform well on the job. Unsurprisingly, many respondents also suggested that being the only Black person, and often the only Black woman, at work made them concerned about being fired or passed over for advancement, raises, or promotions.
In this manner, being the “only one” contributed to a sense of economic insecurity. For example, Pam, a 31-year-old single woman with a professional degree, noted: “My fear is that I’ll get let go and then there’s no severance, there’s no nothing—it’s like, ‘Thank you for your services. Have a good day, good bye, get out of here.’” For Pam and many women in the study, including their own mothers, economic precarity due to job loss was a central preoccupation.
For Kyla, a 31-year-old single woman with a professional degree employed part-time in the marketing field, being the only Black woman at her company was directly related to her vulnerability. Although she described working harder than her coworkers, she was fired while taking some time off work. She explains:
So I got fired on vacation. I was the only Black female in my entire company, the only one. I outworked everybody. Each one of my managers and the girl who became my manager who—it’s funny how people laugh, they’ll smile in your face, and then they’ll chop you down behind your back. I was outworking her. Like literally the week leading up to this went like this. I met with our director. ‘Oh my god, you do such great work. You’re so amazing. You’re always here.’ Blah, blah, blah. This and that.
Kyla’s experience of being fired while on vacation after working very hard to develop her career, was certainly a big blow to her wishes for economic mobility and security. But like Kyla, Pam, and others who described social isolation in the workplace, Black women’s prospects for career advancement may come at a heavy price. Being the “only one” necessarily leads to more scrutiny of one’s job performance than if there were other Black people, especially Black women, present in the workplace.
This study considered unique stressors associated with upward social mobility among Black middle-class women. Across age and focus groups, the women described incurring significant debt to acquire the educational status needed to compete for jobs in their chosen careers. In spite of their own financial struggles, women were frequently thrust into the role of financial provider for their immediate and extended families, often when they were in their late adolescence/early adulthood. The cycle of debt and financial responsibility limited their own financial security and hindered their overall well-being. Moreover, because the respondents had extensive familial financial responsibilities, having a stable and relatively lucrative career took on an even more important role.
Simultaneously, respondents in this study described the difficulty of navigating primarily White spaces as Black women, where they were often a double minority. In keeping with findings from previous research that suggests Black middle-class people experience higher levels of racial isolation in the workplace than their lower-income peers (Hall et al. 2012), the Black women in the study reported being alienated at work because they were the “only one.” The inability to talk honestly about race and racism makes finding common ground and acceptance difficult, which contributes to a lack of allyship and social isolation in the workplace (Cose 1993). Unsurprisingly, Black women felt that being the “only one” made them vulnerable to additional scrutiny and concern about their job security. Because Black women are also underpaid relative to their educational status and human capital, their concerns are born out empirically. Although Black people recognize they are often treated unfairly, they hope the workplace will be different. However, they frequently come to realize that factors other than merit or ability determine how far they can ascend in their careers (Cose 1993).
In sum, it is important to situate the findings in the overall societal context in the United States. Although many people are negatively affected by the student loan crisis, the women in this study described an experience that differs from the majority middle class. First, they come from families with fewer socioeconomic resources overall, including wealth. As such, it is much more difficult to buffer the inevitable financial shocks that arise as one tries to acquire additional socioeconomic resources like going to school, buying a house, or opening a business. Second, because Black families have less wealth and fewer members who are middle class, Black middle-class women often take on the role of financial provider, for some as early as late adolescence/early adulthood. This is in contrast to the majority of the middle class, in which few White middle-class adolescents would be expected to work to support their families (Hardaway and McLoyd 2009). However, for many Black families, helping each other deal with discrimination and limited financial opportunity is a cultural value. The question remains, however, how much does it cost for Black people to achieve upward social mobility?
Black women in the sample also faced significant challenges at work as they tried to earn more money, use their human capital skills, and make progress on their own financial goals. They were also often the only Black person and/or Black woman at work, which created feelings of isolation and concern about their job security. The context of the work environment presents an additional challenge to their prospects for upward mobility and their ability to remain in the middle class. As Higginbotham (2001) found in her sample of middle-class Black women, the workplace is often a space in which Black women feel deeply compelled to overcome negative assumptions and stereotypes held by their White peers. Upwardly mobile Black women in this sample struggled to meet their own expectations along with those from their families of origin in addition to their colleagues and peers in the workplace. Gaining a more nuanced understanding of the intersectional negotiations that Black women face in different settings is critical to gaining an accurate, appropriately complex understanding of how race, gender, class, and other identities operate in contemporary society.
In spite of the contributions of this work, we acknowledge some limitations. First, although focus groups are an appropriate data collection method for understanding social phenomena for which we have little empirical knowledge, it can be difficult to interpret findings that are generated from group discussion. For example, respondents may vary in willingness to offer opinions or be reticent to disagree with the group as it coalesces around normative themes (Smith 2000). However, during the facilitation of the focus groups and in the analysis, we emphasized the “collective voice,” or the idea that the group should arrive at a collaborative, jointly constructed perspective (Smith 2000). Although, this strategy cannot completely eliminate the challenges of focus group data, it does mitigate the data’s effects. Second, because we privileged the experiences of Black women, it is difficult to determine whether the findings are exclusive to them, Black men, and/or to women of other ethno-racial groups. However, given how little we know about this group of Black women, the exclusive focus provided valuable insight to their experiences that will inform future research. Third, these data were collected in the post-Ferguson St. Louis area, a region with a specific racial and socioeconomic context. As such, although the findings are likely applicable to Black people in the United States, and perhaps globally, we acknowledge the unique milieu in which the study was conducted. Fourth, we relied on educational attainment, specifically completion of college, as the primary marker of middle class in this study. While this sample was, on average, relatively highly educated, scholars may argue that other aspects of social class such as occupational prestige or income categories may have been more appropriate inclusion criteria for the study (Marsh et al. 2007). Similarly, Marsh and colleagues noted differences in the family composition of middle-class Black people, specifically that a fast-growing segment of middle-class Black people are single and live alone. Although we report marital status to describe the respondents, the study did not systematically investigate the relationship between household composition and financial precarity. However, future, large-scale studies may investigate this link.
In sum, the findings from this study suggest that although many Black middle-class women are striving for upward mobility through higher education, the constellation of debt, family financial responsibilities, and truncated labor market opportunities may limit their ascent. As such, the status of Black middle-class women may indeed be a litmus test for the socioeconomic health of Black Americans in general. Therefore, it is critical to identify and investigate the barriers that Black women face in their pursuit of upward social mobility in addition to the effects of these stressors on multiple outcomes.
Further, although the United States represents a unique social, cultural, and economic context, there may be reason to believe that Black women in other developed economies may share similar experiences. For example, scholars working on the British Black middle class have found that, similar to Black Americans, Black Brits face a racialized hierarchy particularly in workplace settings (Meghji 2019). Although much of the research on the Black middle class focuses on the United States, emerging work suggests that negative racialized representations of Blackness flow internationally (Meghji 2019). This suggests an important area for comparative research on the intersection of race, gender, and class for Black women in international contexts. Intersectional analysis allows for the examination of new data and, subsequently, new perspectives necessary to develop policies and practices appropriate for the experiences of Black middle-class women. As Higginbotham states, if we do not acknowledge that barriers exist on many levels as well as the limited opportunities for Black women, we cannot possibly strive toward racial equity.
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Tina K. Sacks, University of California, Berkeley
Whitney A. Sewell, Washington University in St. Louis
Antonia E. Asher, Tulane University
Darrell Hudson, Washington University in St. Louis