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Economy & Labor , US

“You’re Basically Trying to Pick Your Poison”: Persistent Inequality Weighs on Black Mothers During COVID-19

by Jessica Washington September 4, 2020

What you need to know
  • Black women struggle disproportionately to keep their children safe and their families financially secure amid the pandemic.

On a bright Sunday afternoon in late August, 37-year-old Adrianne Williams tucked her son Josiah into his car seat. The energetic three-year-old was talkative that afternoon, excited for the weekly hour drive. Josiah’s latest obsession, a song about foxes, blared out of the car radio as the pair rolled down the open stretch of highway between their home in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Williams’ mother’s house in Charlotte. Williams, an eighth-grade teacher, is working virtually, but goes into the school building daily to teach live lessons, making it impossible to care for her son at home. Although his daycare is open, Josiah has asthma and severe allergies, making him high-risk for COVID-19, so it’s not safe for him to go. Instead, Williams leaves him with her mother on Sundays and collects him on Fridays. It’s the only way to make the more than hour-long commute less taxing on both her and him. 

“It’s still hard daily for me to process not having my son,” Williams tells The Fuller Project. “Just today, I was teary-eyed because I missed out on a moment,” she says, relaying how she couldn’t comfort him during a recent thunderstorm. “He is usually so upset that he wants to sleep with an adult, holding on and shaking for dear life.” 

Although she considered taking time off, she and her husband, who currently works in a hotel kitchen managing inventory, quickly realized that wasn’t an option because COVID medical leave only pays a third of her salary. And they don’t have the savings for one of them to quit without putting the family under financial strain. “Compared to my white co-workers or my Black co-workers with white spouses, they have way more resources that can alleviate some of these issues,” says Williams. She and her husband are both Black, which she says means they miss out on generational wealth or having parents who can afford to live nearby, like many of Williams’ white co-workers. “For me and my family, it’s just radically different,” she says. 

“Do I expose my family to houselessness and hunger? Or do I expose my family to the coronavirus? That’s what Black mothers are looking at right now all over the country.”

Monifa Bandale, Senior Vice-President of MomsRising

The pandemic has forced many Black mothers to choose between financial stability and exposing their family and themselves to a deadly virus and a health crisis disproportionately harming Black communities.  

Though Williams has found a challenging but temporary solution that allows her to work, experts warn that if more isn’t done to make child care safe and affordable, many Black mothers will be forced to leave the workforce – and may not be able to return. 

“You’re basically trying to pick your poison,” says Monifa Bandale, Senior Vice-President of MomsRising, a national advocacy organization for mothers and families. “Do I expose my family to houselessness and hunger? Or do I expose my family to the coronavirus? That’s what Black mothers are looking at right now all over the country.”

Black Americans are more likely to catch the virus and significantly more likely to seriously suffer complications or die after being infected, according to the Center for Disease Control.  

Well before the pandemic, Black mothers often struggled to pay for quality child care. And with two-thirds of Black mothers being the sole breadwinners in their families, having access to affordable childcare is crucial: the median Black family with two children spends nearly 56 percent of their income on childcare, a much larger share than any other group, according to a report by the Center for American Progress (CAP). Black and multi-racial families are also twice as likely as white families to experience childcare-related job disruptions, according to the same report. 

“These lost months and years compound over time, leading to even greater inequities…decades from now,” says Rasheed Malik, a Senior Policy Analyst at the CAP. 

Persistent inequality

Persistent inequality means Black women, on average, have less savings if there are disruptions to child care. The median Black woman earns 62 cents for every dollar earned by a white male, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. And the median Black family has only one-tenth of the wealth of the average white household, according to the Brookings Institute. In addition to the wage gap, nearly all of the six jobs Black women are the most likely to hold in the United States are deemed essential in multiple states and cities, according to the Center for American Progress, meaning many Black mothers are further limited in their ability to provide child care from home.  

For Black single mothers like Monique Dorman, 39, a former clinical review nurse at an insurance company, who has a two-week-old daughter and a four-year-old son, the stakes are even higher. After months of trying to balance online work managing patients while caring for her own family, Dorman made the difficult decision to leave her job in July, when she was late into her pregnancy.  “I wasn’t sleeping,” she says. “It was so overwhelming.” Since quitting, her bills have piled up. “I didn’t have a lot saved up, to begin with,” she says, “so that’s running out.” 

Dorman is temporarily staying with her children’s paternal aunt near Miami, Florida, hours away from her home in Orlando. However, she has spent most of the pandemic so far alone, managing her finances and the responsibilities of child care. She hasn’t felt safe putting her son in outside child care centers because her area is a COVID hotspot. She still owes rent on her Orlando home.

Dorman is just days out from delivering her daughter by C-section, and even though she should be resting and is suffering from an infection caused by her surgery, she is now looking for a job. 

She was able to recently sign up for unemployment, but the $100 a week is not enough to pay her household expenses. “It’s up to me as a sole provider in my family to work and take care of my child and keep us safe,” Dorman says. “I’m still trying to figure everything out so that my son and my new child can have a roof over their head.” 

Investing in paid family leave programs, funding safe universal childcare, and enforcing anti-wage discrimination policies will go a long way towards alleviating the burden from mothers like Dorman and Williams, says Bandale from MomsRising. But none of this can be solved overnight. 

For now, Williams says her family is just going to have to make adjustments. “It’s hard getting used to not having your child around,” she says, “but as long as we have to work, it’s how it has to be.” 

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