10 Policies To Improve Economic Security for Black Women With Disabilities

Black Women and Girls With Disabilities Series

This series examines the impacts of structural racism, sexism, and ableism on the education, health outcomes, and economic security of Black women and girls with disabilities in the United States.

Introduction and summary

Author’s note: The disability community is evolving to using identity-first language in place of person-first language. This is because it views disability as being a core component of identity, much like race and gender. Some members of the community, such as people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, prefer person-first language. In this report, the terms are used interchangeably.

Black disabled women and girls face myriad systemic barriers due to race, gender, and disability status that significantly influence their poverty rates, financial stability, employment, and housing. Moreover, data show that across all family structures, women of color play an important role in providing economic support for their families.1 Yet policy discussions and discourse about economic security often do not take an intersectional approach—one that acknowledges the multiple identities people hold, the combined effects these identities have on people in their daily lives, and the subsequent ways that structural barriers impact their economic well-being.

To meet the needs of Black women and girls with disabilities, policymakers must make intersectionality central to any efforts aimed at dismantling the structural and cultural barriers that contribute to the inequality disabled women of color experience. Policymakers must consider the many identities and full dimensions of individuals as they seek to address access to affordable and accessible housing and employment, as well as modernize the social safety net. This report underlines some of the policy areas that most affect Black disabled women and girls and highlights new policies that could transform and create a truly equitable economy. Importantly, this report draws on roundtable conversations the Center for American Progress hosted with Black disabled women and girls to gain their perspectives on issues central to their lived experiences, such as the additional costs of a disability, lack of affordable and accessible housing, gaps in employment, access to public benefits, and the wealth gap.

The Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress hosted a series of three virtual roundtables in June 2021 with Black women and girls with disabilities. This report is based on the first roundtable, which focused on economic security and asked participants what economic security means to them, what barriers they experience to economic security, and what policies and changes are needed.

Lastly, this report offers several recommendations to develop an equitable system, starting with working with those whom policy most affects to develop it, increasing the collection of disaggregated data to facilitate an intersectional analysis of women across multiple identities, passing legislation to support workers, increasing housing, and investing and reforming social safety net programs.

The cost of being a Black woman or girl with disabilities

Black disabled women and girls experience economic insecurity at higher rates,2 often due to job loss; subminimum wages—as low as $2.13 per hour3—for disabled workers; and reduced earnings caused by barriers to education and skills development and other challenges. A significant barrier to economic security often missed is the added cost of living with a disability. A U.S. household containing an adult with a disability must spend an estimated 28 percent more income—or an additional $17,690 per year at the median household income—to obtain the same standard of living as a household with no disability.4 Additional costs can include the need for personal assistance services, assistive technology, and other accessibility tools.5 It is also important to note that disaggregated data on the job loss and employment of Black disabled women and girls needs to be more widely researched and available.

Adults with disabilities are more likely to have health insurance than those without disabilities because of Medicare or Medicaid coverage. However, they are also “more than twice as likely to have difficulty paying their medical bills.”6 These bills include out-of-pocket expenses, copays, and services that insurance does not cover. For perspective, consider Eman Rimawi-Doster, a Black Palestinian disabled woman who in a recent Center for American Progress column highlighted the different ways she spends more to meet her daily needs, including paying $50,000 for one prosthetic leg. Even with insurance, Rimawi-Doster’s out-of-pocket costs for a refurbished prosthetic leg were astronomical.7

Similarly, Heather Watkins, a Black disabled mother and advocate, points to the seemingly insignificant little costs associated with disability that quickly add up.8 For example, while food delivery services became very popular during the pandemic, they are sometimes a necessary service for disabled people. Scheduling paratransit services to run an errand can take up to several hours to a whole day. Disabled individuals may have to travel significantly farther to shop and obtain services because many public spaces are not accessible. Watkins noted that she often has to think, “Is there an accessible parking spot, are there stairs to the grocery store, are there automatic doors, etc.?”9 During the CAP roundtable discussions noted above, participants spoke on how extra costs related to their disabilities hit every facet of their lives. People with a mobility disability often have to buy an expensive van and spend additional money to make it accessible. Another example is buying a house. After the regular costs of purchasing a house, people with disabilities often need to retrofit homes so that they are accessible. This can include paying to install ramps, widen doors, or add handrails.

Then there are the racial and gender wealth gaps that undermine the economic security that all women of color experience.10 For Black women, the wealth gap is significant: One commonly cited estimate found that single white, non-Hispanic men’s median wealth was slightly south of $29,000, while single Black women’s median wealth was just $200.11 These disparities pose significant challenges to Black Americans in general and Black women specifically as they attempt to attain economic security. An intersectional approach that centers both race and gender when analyzing the combined factors driving wealth disparities illuminates the double marginalization that Black women face. While it’s important to understand the ways race and gender affect wealth, a broader intersectional approach is needed, and other marginalized identities should be included in future analyses.

Poverty and disabled Black women and girls

Disability is often discussed as “both a cause and consequence of poverty.”12 The two are closely linked due to structural barriers such as the added costs of disabilities, limited access to education, and limited opportunities for employment. Further, poverty can lead to or worsen a disability because it limits access to quality and preventive health care.13 In 2019, the National Disability Institute found disabled adults experience poverty at more than twice the rate of nondisabled adults.14 For African Americans with disabilities, the poverty rate is 37 percent, almost double the rate for African Americans without disabilities.15 According to another study, 25 percent of all Black women live below the poverty line—and the plight is greater for Black mothers, with 39 percent living in poverty.16 Research specifically focused on women with disabilities showed that poverty is compounded for disabled women. In 2012, poverty rates were almost three times higher for women with work-related disabilities than they were for nondisabled women.17 While there are some good data and research on poverty and different identities, data must consider all aspects of intersectional identities; specifically, there is a need for more data that focuses on the intersections of women, race, and disability.

The wealth gap

Wealth is the difference between what households own in assets and what they owe.18 Assets include real estate, cars, retirement accounts, and checking and savings accounts. Wealth helps people weather economic downturns, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, job losses, and health expenses. Therefore, wealth aids households in maintaining economic security. All women of color experience both a gender and a racial wealth gap.19 There is a need for a more intersectional approach and the inclusion of other marginalized identities, including disabilities, in future analyses.

A significant contribution to the women’s wealth gap is the gender wage gap, or the difference between women’s earnings and men’s.20 In 2019, women working full time, year round earned 82 cents for every $1 earned by their male counterparts.21 While women consistently earn less than men, the gap is much wider for most women of color. For every $1 earned by white, non-Hispanic men working full time, year round, Black women earned 63 cents in 2019.22 This translates into a median annual earnings gap of $24,110 between Black women and white, non-Hispanic men nationally.23 The wage gap for Black women is driven by a host of factors, including gender and racial discrimination, occupational segregation, a lack of strong policies such as paid leave to help navigate work-family conflicts, and more.24

In 2019, the median wealth of Black U.S. households was $24,100, while the median wealth for white households was $189,100.25 The Black-white wealth gap is seen across all wealth measurements and other socioeconomic characteristics.26 The wealth gap is significantly larger for Black women, who face a wage gap and a wealth gap informed by both gender and racial discrimination: One commonly cited estimate found that single white, non-Hispanic men’s median wealth is $28,900, while single Black women’s median wealth is just $200.27

Generational dynamics also play a role in establishing and maintaining wealth. According to the Brookings Institution, Black families are more than 16 times more likely than white families to experience poverty spanning three generations.28 This study shows how initial inequality can be compounded over generations and lead to lower upward mobility for Black people. Further, the parents and grandparents of half of Black people in the bottom fifth of the income distribution were poor; this is true for only 8 percent of poor white people.29

Wealth provides people with the power and resources to invest in education, start businesses, buy land, and participate in the democratic process. Low wages and compounding low wealth or high wealth over generations contribute to households’ ability to gain economic security. Economic security allows households to do things such as build more wealth and protect themselves during economic downturns. Because of the disparities in wealth, Black Americans encounter enormous systematic obstacles to catching up to their white counterparts and attaining economic security.

Housing and disabled Black women and girls

The United States is in the midst of a housing crisis due to soaring rents and housing costs. The pandemic has only exacerbated the existing housing crisis.30 Black people often face discriminatory policies such as predatory lending and subprime mortgages.31 For disabled people of color, these inequalities are deepened by the limited availability of accessible housing. For instance, “less than 5 percent of housing nationwide is accessible for people with moderate mobility difficulties, and less than 1 percent is accessible for wheelchair users.”32 Eman Rimawi-Doster shared that her New York City apartment is not accessible, and that is among the many reasons getting a prosthetic leg was so important. “Maybe if we lived in an accessible apartment, it wouldn’t be as big of an issue, but we have five steps. So, unless I had someone to help me up and down every day, multiple times a day, I cannot use a wheelchair in my own apartment.”33

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2016, adults with disabilities were about four times more likely than nondisabled adults to experience sheltered homelessness.34 More recently, data show that 7 million renters with disabilities spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent and therefore are more likely to face eviction.35 Furthermore, since Black women are more likely to face eviction in their lifetimes,36 it stands to reason that Black women with disabilities are particularly susceptible to homelessness, but the research necessary to buttress that claim is lacking.

Employment and disabled Black women and girls

Even with the passage of historical legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act,37 Section 508,38 and other work incentive programs, employment among disabled people has lagged. These disparities are greater among disabled women and disabled people of color. In 2019, 33 percent of working-age adults with disabilities were employed, contrasted with 75 percent of adults without a disability.39 African Americans with disabilities had the lowest employment rate at 25 percent.40 It’s important to note that employment disparities were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic; although the pandemic had a sharp impact on the job market and unemployment rates during 2020 for all workers, it disproportionately harmed Black people with disabilities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 across all age groups, people with disabilities were less likely to be employed, and across all educational attainment levels, unemployment rates were higher for people with disabilities.41 Employment rates varied by race: In 2020, the unemployment rate was 16.3 percent for Black disabled people but 11.6 percent for white disabled people.42


Yet employment rates and wages are only part of the conversation. Disability discrimination in employment also affects disabled people’s career trajectories, advancement, and retention. Despite progress, there are myriad ways disabled workers experience structural barriers to gaining and retaining employment. Ableism and stereotypes persist at every stage of employment, from job listings to systemic devaluing of disabled workers’ labor. For example, the Section 14(c) provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) permits certified employers to pay disabled employees lower than the federal minimum wage.43 Although the provision was purportedly meant to incentivize employers to hire people with disabilities, since its adoption nearly a century ago, it has produced undesirable effects, with almost all employed disabled people who receive a subminimum wage working in segregated workplaces.44 The FLSA allows employers to pay youth with disabilities as little as $4.25 per hour.45 The average pay under Section 14(c) is around $2.15.46 Similar to the segregation caused by Section 14(c), Black women face occupational segregation. Black women are overrepresented in low-wage jobs such as nursing assistants and maids.47

While the long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unknown, some employment trends are emerging. Women have been disproportionately harmed by job losses during the pandemic, with Black, Asian, and Hispanic women experiencing the worst outcomes.48 Women’s labor force participation rate has plunged to levels not seen since 1988.49 According to McKinsey & Company and Oxford Economics, employment for women may not recover to pre-pandemic levels until 2024, at least a year after men are projected to recover.50 Historically after recessions, women and Black communities need more time to recover. Likewise, disabled workers have fallen behind in the recovery. In May 2021, 10.2 percent of disabled workers were unemployed, compared with 5.3 percent of nondisabled workers.51 The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not publish disaggregated data for disabled Black workers in its monthly jobs report news release, so it is more difficult to understand how this group of workers is recovering.

Social Security and asset limits and disabled Black women and girls

Most public assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income (SSI), are means-tested, meaning that beneficiaries are required to have assets below a certain threshold. These asset limits are found to trap people in a state of poverty and harm.52 For example, in 2020, the maximum federal benefit for individuals on SSI was $783 per month, nearly three-quarters of the federal poverty line.53 To be eligible for SSI, applicants cannot have assets that exceed $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for married couples.54 These limits have not been updated since the inception of the program nearly four decades ago. Benefits recipients are forced to compromise their long-term economic security and deplete their savings by “spending down” every month.55 Rimawi-Doster highlighted this problem—living in poverty while receiving Social Security Disability Insurance—during her interview: “I wished people knew how horrible it really is. … they either think you are a complete invalid or milking the system.”56

Roundtable participants echoed her frustration and concerns, noting the emotional toll of public benefits and, specifically, dealing with the Social Security Administration. One participant said people who receive benefits live in fear. “We live in fear of going into repayment status, we live in fear of losing our benefits. Even when we manage to get a job and don’t receive benefits anymore, we fear being one medical accident away from being in poverty again.”57

Entering repayment status or receiving an overpayment is typically related to work activity or asset limits. Anecdotal evidence from the Social Security Administration suggests that overpayments can be traumatic experiences for beneficiaries and may disincentivize work.58 Those with traumatic experiences are often those who are most marginalized from the outset. According to a Government Accountability Office report, overpayments were most predominant among traditionally disadvantaged populations, such as Black or Hispanic beneficiaries, and those with less than a high school education.59

Researchers found only 40 percent to 70 percent of people eligible for means-tested programs enrolled and people with high levels of need were scared away from applying for welfare benefits by stigma.60 Immigrants and mixed legal status families have compounding barriers to applying for means tested programs.61 In addition to the social stigma, recipients face the stress of managing their enrollment in various programs. There is no central place for these services; typically, the different agencies do not communicate with one another, and most are understaffed and underfunded. A roundtable participant also mentioned how difficult it is to get accurate information: “It could take months or years to know you have an overpayment even if you did everything right.”

The policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic also affected benefits. The stimulus payments were not supposed to count against eligibility, but anecdotal reports from legal aid attorneys indicate the Social Security Administration has suspended some disability benefits.62 In an interview with HuffPost, one man said since they reduced his benefits because of the stimulus check, he may not be able to pay his electric bill.63 Other roundtable participants emphasized the penalizing and paternalistic nature of these programs. They described feeling criminalized for mistakes while the programs themselves are not held accountable for administrative errors.

Policy recommendations

Poverty will persist among marginalized groups until policymakers take concrete steps to eliminate barriers and guarantee access to the services people need to make ends meet. This is particularly true for Black women and girls with disabilities, as disability can be “both a cause and consequence of poverty.”64 Interviewee Heather Watkins emphasized policymakers must develop comprehensive ideas from listening to and caring about people with disabilities. “There is so much breadth and wealth inherent in the disability community … it’s so much broader and more complex. If only people were open to experiences from all different lenses.”

Reconciliation efforts this year should address the needs of disabled Americans

President Joe Biden pushed for sweeping economic change and investment through the American Rescue Plan Act65 and the Build Back Better plan. The American Rescue Plan Act included several wins for the disability community. Unlike previous payments that only included children, families were able to receive direct payments for adult dependents. The president’s plan proposed $2.5 billion for special education, $4 billion for mental health services and supports, and $11.4 billion in additional funding for Medicaid’s home and community-based services (HCBS).

It is important to celebrate the historic passage of the American Rescue Plan Act and the significant gains it provided. Congress needs to build on that critical legislation by pushing to enact more important elements of President Biden’s plan in order to fully address the challenges facing people with disabilities. The administration promised to make historic investments in children and families, including creating a paid family and medical leave program and expanding funding to Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) programs. A reconciliation bill should include critical provisions for the disability community: increasing spending on home and community-based services to reduce wait lists and increase direct care pay, expanding options for accessible child care for disabled children, and providing grants to help phase out the subminimum wage.

Below are some solutions policymakers should pursue to address the structural inequities faced by Black disabled women and girls.

Increase intersectional data collection

As seen throughout this report, there is a need to increase and prioritize intersectional data in all sectors, including for Black women and girls with disabilities. Ensuring data that is disaggregated into different components allows policymakers to pinpoint disparities, evaluate whether policies are equitable, and promote more accountability and targeted solutions. This type of precision in data collection is critical to revealing undetected disparities and who is most affected by these disparities.66 Intersectional data are particularly important to gaining an in-depth understanding of diverse experiences and backgrounds.

Ensure equity and support for all workers

Employment and workplace policies should include pay transparency, limiting employer reliance on salary history in hiring and compensation decisions, a job guarantee program, employer pay data collection, and expansion of collective bargaining. Black women union members tend to have higher wages and greater economic stability.67 Lawmakers need to boost resources to help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the Occupational Safety and Health administration (OSHA), and other enforcement agencies prioritize enforcement of existing anti-discrimination policies and protect workers’ health and safety. In addition, Congress should strengthen protections against pregnancy discrimination and workplace sexual harassment through legislation such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, the BE HEARD in the Workplace Act,68 and the EMPOWER Act.69

Pass paid family and medical leave

Paid family and medical leave is a critical policy to support the economic security of people with disabilities and their families.70 A comprehensive paid leave program would provide workers with disabilities job-protected time away from work, without risking a paycheck, to care for their own health or a seriously ill family member. This would help disabled people gain employment and stay employed without fear of retaliation when they need to take paid leave. Federal policymakers must pass a permanent, comprehensive, and inclusive paid family and medical leave law.71

Increase the minimum wage

Raising the minimum wage would benefit workers in low-wage and essential jobs—something that would benefit women of color and people with disabilities, who are typically concentrated in such jobs.72 In addition, policymakers must phase out the use of the subminimum wage and sheltered workshops for people with disabilities.

Ensure accessible and affordable housing

As a first step, lawmakers must increase the availability of affordable housing. In addition, CAP has recommended several policies to address housing insecurities for disabled people specifically, from implementing the Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) Settings Rule73 to creating a national home modification program through the National Housing Trust Fund.74 Roundtable participants noted the importance of allowing people with disabilities to make their own decisions. Participants recommended that programs give money directly to people with disabilities to make their home, cars, and lives accessible.

Invest in home and community-based services

Disabled people have a constitutional right to live in integrated settings.75 Additionally, congregate settings such as nursing homes and institutions have been some of the most dangerous places to live and work during the COVID-19 pandemic.76 Therefore, more permanent funding must be directed toward services that allow people to live in their communities and age in place. As a starting point, CAP supports the $400 billion investment in HCBS proposed in the American Jobs Plan.

Increase monthly benefits and reform asset limits

The federal amounts for monthly benefits and asset limits are outdated and impede economic security for people with disabilities. Currently, SSI beneficiaries cannot cover rent of a one-bedroom apartment in most places.77 Lawmakers should increase asset limits, if not eliminate them altogether. Congress should pass the SSI Restoration Act to modernize the Social Security program and ensure people with disabilities are no longer trapped in poverty.78

Establish student loan forgiveness policies

Student loan debt is a major household cost. Black women have the highest student loan debt of all researched demographic groups.79 Black borrowers also face high default rates.80 To address the inequities in student debt, particularly the disproportionate burden on Black borrowers, policymakers should cancel at least $10,000 in student loan debt, and the administration should discharge the loans of borrowers who have a permanent disability.81 They must also improve the higher education system to better serve current and future Black students with disabilities, such as by doubling the Pell Grant and conducting equity audits of how colleges are serving this population and others who have been overlooked.82

Create a postal banking system

Two-thirds of African American households with a disability are unbanked or underbanked.83 Black households are also more likely than white households to turn to alternative forms of credit like high-interest payday loans.84 Many households lack access to mainstream banking systems, and the federal government could provide these vital financial services by creating a postal banking system.85 The lack of access to banking services and lower wages contribute to the racial wealth gap. Allowing the U.S. Postal Service to provide banking services such as bank accounts, small loans, and check cashing would expand locations to and access for low-income and Black communities. In 2020, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) introduced legislation, the Postal Banking Act (S. 2755), that would allow the U.S. Postal Service to offer such services.86

Support reparations

Policymakers should support H.R. 40 and establish a commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the United States.87 The commission should analyze policy interventions, including implementing reparations, to address America’s history of slavery and systemic racism and their lasting economic impacts.88 Black disabled Americans must be included from the outset. Researchers, policymakers, and the commission must consider how Black disabled people would access any program and how any financial benefits would affect existing public benefits or asset limits.

Conclusion

Poverty is not inevitable for women, people of color, or disabled people. Robust policy solutions must prioritize the needs of the most marginalized Americans, including Black women and girls with disabilities. Efforts must include accessible and inclusive data collection and engagement with communities most affected. Data and engagement lead to more funding opportunities and better policies.

Furthermore, policymakers must work to expand access to inclusive employment and affordable and accessible housing and modernize the social safety net. The policy recommendations included in this report are not exhaustive, but they are important steps to achieving a more just and equitable system for Black women and girls with disabilities.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Taryn Williams, managing director for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at CAP; Mia Ives-Rublee, director for the Disability Justice Initiative; Kyle Ross, for fact-checking assistance; CAP’s Racial Equity and Justice, Economy, Poverty, Higher Education, and Women’s teams for their review; and CAP’s Editorial and Art teams for their guidance.


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Patrick F. Williams