While walking through the Alexandria African American Heritage Parkrecently, I came across the beautiful sculpture, “Truths That Rise From the Roots Remembered,” and I reflected on the deep roots that run through Alexandria. In that park you find the headstones of people buried long ago and you realize how deep those roots are.
Black families have lived and thrived in Alexandria since its beginning. Men and women who raised families, sent children off to college, fought wars for our safety and freedom, and were subjected to blatant reminders that they were second class citizens. Segregation ended officially in Virginia in the mid-20th century, but in its place an invisible barrier has sprung up that threatens the health and prosperity of black women in Alexandria.
Each February, we celebrate Black History Month. As part of Alexandria’s Commission for Women (CFW), I worked this past year on a report that has reshaped how I, a black woman, view living and working in Alexandria. In our research, we learned that women of color lag behind white women in earnings, educational outcomes, and employment rates. Twenty percent of black women live in poverty here, compared to 15 percent of Latina and 7 percent of white women.
The CFW’s November 2018 report on the Status of Women reported: “A family of three was considered to live below the poverty line in 2016 if their total pre-tax annual income was $20,420 or less.” But living with an income of $40,840 for a family of three — twice poverty-level income — was still insufficient to make ends meet in Alexandria.
According to the Basic Economic Security Tables (BEST), a family of three composed of one worker, an infant and a school-aged child requires an annual income of at least $77,604 to meet their basic needs in the City of Alexandria without receiving any public or private assistance. The same BEST Index showed that the median income for black women in Alexandria was $33,000, barely enough to support a single person, much less cover the needs of a mother of young children. And making things worse, black women in Alexandria face an eight percent unemployment rate, outpacing all of other races and ethnicities in the city.
Poverty influences all other decisions in life. Healthful food choices, ability to pay for quality childcare, access to healthcare, and opportunities for educational advancement all require an adequate income.
Alexandria can do better. It’s time we band together to end this overwhelming disparity. To that end, the CFW has developed specific recommendations:
First, the City should expand the criteria for providing economic development incentives to employers to include exemplary wage, leave, benefit and scheduling policies and practices. Substantial numbers of women in Alexandria work in occupations associated with low pay, lack of job security, and few if any benefits. We have all heard how Amazon and Virginia Tech will bring more opportunity to many residents. The City should make sure that these opportunities aren’t creating even more disparity for Alexandria’s women of color.
Second, the City can use its authority to influence the high cost of living in Alexandria. The Alexandria Health Department found recently that affordable housing was a crisis for many citizens, no matter their race or ethnicity. Housing and child care are the largest expenses, and innovative efforts in these two areas are strongly recommended, including everything from evaluating zoning laws to public-private partnerships.
Finally, the City should increase their support and leadership on education, workforce training, and skills development. Of what use is it to bring innovative job opportunities to the city if the population most in need doesn’t have the skills and training to get hired? The City can be a champion of education and workforce development for all Alexandrians, including economically vulnerable populations like black women and girls.
When I sat down at one of the benches surrounding the “Truths That Rise From the Roots Remembered” sculpture and thought about Alexandria and our next century, I knew what I want: a city that values the livelihoods of black women as much as their counterparts of other races. My pledge this Black History Month is to not only remember the accomplishments of the black women who have come before me but to work to develop the city I want to live in, a community that acknowledges that wage and income disparity should be addressed and eradicated. I hope the rest of our citizens join me in demanding nothing less.
Teisha Garrett is the Commissioner of Alexandria Commission for Women.