By Ayesha K. Mustafaa
The Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative (SRBWI) released a report Nov. 10, showing that “a lack of educational and economic infrastructure reinforces the barriers to job opportunities for black women in rural Mississippi, particularly in the Delta area.”
Released in a press conference held in Mississippi’s Capitol building, the report’s findings span across the south to include rural areas in Alabama and Georgia. It showed that the “economic insecurities” are staggering, reflecting a day-to-day struggle to simply survive.
The numbers show that black women in the rural south earn nearly one-third less than white women; unemployment rate for black women is 23.6 percent while the rate for white women is at 5.9 percent – compared to the national unemployment rates.
The poorest county in the nation is Wilcox County, Alabama, where black women’s unemployment rate is as high as 36.1 percent to white women at 2.1 percent.
The report shows that opportunities to climb out of poverty are hindered in today’s job climate where access to the Internet is an important link in searching for job availability.
However, Mississippi has the lowest Internet accessibility (59 percent) for black women than in any other part of the country.
Philanthropic investments in the South to support programs aimed at women and girls also lag behind, according to the report. Less than 1 percent goes to black women across the rural south, compared to nationwide assistance to women and girls at 5.4 percent of philanthropic support.
According to SRBWI regional administrator Oleta Garrett Fitzgerald, who is also executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund Southern Regional Office, “Women in this region are increasingly becoming single heads of household and rank low or last on nearly every social indicator – from income and earnings to obesity and food security.”
When they reach out for help, Fitzgerald said, “these women are made to feel like they are beggars asking for something they do not deserve.”
Fitzgerald said, “It also shows in the number of children showing up in extreme poverty conditions. When we talk about living in poverty, that is a family of four making $23,000 a year. Extreme poverty is a family living on half of that – $11,000 to $12,000 a year for a family of four.”
The author of the report is C. Nicole Mason, PhD, executive director of the Center for Research and Policy in the Public Interest. She said, “This report documents the barriers faced by these women; 200 women were interviewed across three states and nine counties.”
Mason said, “This report should be a call to philanthropists, foundations and our state government to infuse critical resources into communities to build the long-term economic security and well-being of low-income black women, children and families in the rural south.”
SRBWI works in 77 rural counties in the “black belt of Alabama, Georgia and in the Delta of Mississippi, working with the most neglected regions in the nation. Its goal, according to Fitzgerald, is “to bring resources to the rural communities and harness the leadership of these thousands of women and girls to advance legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels to improve the long-term economic outcomes for them.”
Many of these women are taken off welfare, after which they have to rely on food stamps, family members and odd jobs to feed their families, said Mason. “It is not that they are off welfare and doing well or doing poor; they are not showing up anywhere,” she said.
“It is as if these women have disappeared in the labor market, and they have been pushed to the margins.”
Another factor in the report pointed to the high mortality rate of childbearing women, who have no health insurance – not even Obama Care. “Some fall in the gap – they don’t make enough money to pay for Obamacare subsidies and neither do they have access to Medicaid,” said Fitzgerald.
She added that they would benefit from Medicaid expansion which Mississippi government officials have blocked. Some families go to the emergency room as a form of health care, where they get diagnosed but do not get medications.
Sarah Bobrow-Williams, asset and finance development director for SRBWI, said most jobs available to these women are low wage and dead end, which calls for alternative economies to be developed to give opportunities for training and earned incomes.
She said this is needed to build community wealth and add value to the already owned land and access to agriculture. These landowners are faced with property taxes which they find difficult to pay.
So businesses in rural transportation and agriculture cooperatives are set up; some receive USDA value grants, where they produce and sell local products to local schools. The women are developing commercial kitchens.
Bobrow-Williams said the coops are agriculture businesses where the women in the Delta grow chemically free fresh produce to bring to market.
Gloria Sturdevant lives in the Mississippi Delta. She said the women and others in the Delta keep up their morale because of their great sense of community.
“The people in the Delta have a lot of hope and think things can change. They have the coops and try to provide seasonal income for their families,” she said. “They have family and church to sustain them.”
Natalie A. Collier is director of the Youth Initiative of the Southern Regional Office of the Children’s Defense Fund. Also impacting the children, she related that schools in the area have no running water, mold in corners of classrooms and computers so outdated they would “explode” if connected to the Internet.
SRBWI attempts to bring attention to these women to break this cycle of poverty.