NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–For the amount of money New York City spends to incarcerate one woman for a
year–about $64,000–it could pay full tuition for four women to complete undergraduate degrees at the City University of New York.
This observation and others were part of a new report by The Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University that contends that women of color–now the majority of women living in New York City–continue to lag behind white women in several areas including health care, educational attainment and employment.
“Women of Color: Two-Thirds of all Women in New York City Still Invisible in Policy–The 2nd Annual Report on The Status of Women of Color in NYC,” gathers comprehensive data on the living conditions of black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women, who together constitute 64 percent the city’s female population, and attribute their social hardships to lack of adequate policies.
Sponsored by the Women of Color Policy Network and the Roundtable of Institutions of People of Color, the report addresses several issues affecting minority women, such as unemployment and health problems. It urges policy makers to give women of color their fair share of budgetary resources, as well as legislative solutions to their growing hardships.
Following the release of the report in late January, the New York City Council Committee on Women’s Issues held a hearing on the report’s findings. Committee chair Tracy Boyland agreed with the urgent necessity to look for legislative and budgetary solutions to these problems.
“In absence of significant social and political commitment, these children will not likely be able to break out of this insidious circle,” declares Boyland. More hearings are scheduled to take place this year.
New York University professor of public policy Walter Stafford, co-author of the study along with graduate student Diana Salas, says the research is a significant break from past efforts.
“Historically, women have long been ignored–and today, this is still true for women of color,” says Stafford.
The report says that although the 1990 census showed that their number exceeded white women, “few analysts or planners highlighted the demographic changes and their policy implications.”
In the absence of such critical data, the extent of these changes remains unnoticed and New York City’s majority women continue to carry the stigmas of their groups.
“There is a serious lack of research on this subject,” says Pier Rogers, director of the network. “Most statistics are made either on the basis of gender or on race–but both factors are rarely brought together.”
Poverty Stands as Major Barrier to Health
The report found that women of color have the highest mortality rates of all women and those diseases are the primary cause of death. In 2000, black and Puerto Rican women accounted for an alarming 80 percent of HIV-related deaths in New York, climbing from 60 percent in 1990. Diabetes is also a major cause of death in these communities. In 2000, 65 percent of New York women who died from the disease were women of color.
Poverty stands as a major barrier to adequate healthcare. The report found that black women have the highest unemployment rate (9.5 percent), followed by Hispanic women (8.6 percent)–both well above white women’s (5.3 percent) and the city average of 6.3 percent. For single mothers, those rates are even higher, reaching 10.9 percent for black women and 12 percent for Latinas.
According to the report, when they do have jobs, women of color often remain confined in low-wage industries, while white women have moved up to higher-paying managerial and professional occupations. Those wide disparities are reflected in income. For instance, the 2000 median family income for white households in Manhattan was $119,000; it was $37,605 for Asian families, $27,939 for black families and $25,939 for Hispanic families living in that same borough. For single mothers, the situation is even worse. The passage of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996–which limited welfare entitlements to five years over a lifetime–has left many of them stranded. “These women live in terribly depressed conditions,” says Stafford.
The report found that 34 percent of Hispanic women, 32 percent of Native American women, 27 percent of black women and 20 percent of Asian women live in poverty. As New York’s poorest, they are more likely to receive a lower standard of care and be denied access to drugs that might prevent or treat diseases.
The authors argue that if policy makers had paid more attention to the particular problems of these groups and allocated more resources to these communities, the deadly consequences of this health crisis could have been largely reduced.
Violence is also a major cause of death in these disadvantaged communities. The report shows that women of color accounted for more than three-fourths (78 percent) of all female homicide victims, with an especially high rate for black women, who made up almost 50 percent of the total, although they represented only one-quarter of the female population aged 10 years and older.
“Those premature deaths affect the lives of children and other adults alike–a growing number of young grandmothers are now raising their grandchildren–often under extremely difficult circumstances,” explained Stafford.
Prostitution Leading Cause of Arrest
Death isn’t the only reason custody is granted to relatives. The report found that the majority of women incarcerated are mothers who lived with and cared for their children before their imprisonment. Black and Hispanic women made up 85 percent of all women arrested in 2001. Although controlled substances, assault and larceny remain the leading causes of arrest, prostitution has significantly increased. Between 1995 and 2001, the proportion of women aged 16 to 24 incarcerated for prostitution jumped from 25 to 42 percent.
In 2001, the incarceration rate for black women (730.7 per every 100,000) was not only the highest for all women in the city, but even exceeded that of white men (488.3 per 100,000.) Those numbers were substantially lower for Latinas (341.8 per 100,000) and drastically different for white women (114.9 per 100,000.) Black men had an incarceration rate of 5,468.3 for the same year and Hispanic men had about half of that proportion (2551 per every 100,000.)
The authors argue that if more educational resources had been put toward the needs of the growing number of young women of color–who are 76 percent of all women under age 15–crime rates would not be so high.
“These are things we should have paid attention to years ago,” says Pier Rogers from the Women of Color Policy Network.
Low levels of educational attainment appear as a major issue for all women of color. According to the report, in 2000, almost half of the female Hispanic population over 25 in New York City had not completed high school. Comparable high school graduation rates for black women are 29 percent and for Native Americans, 43 percent. Even Asian women, represented well in higher education–35 percent of the group completed at least four years of college–had an equal proportion (35 percent) of high school dropouts in 2000.
Access to higher education is still mainly dominated by white women who make up 65 percent of all the women with professional or graduate degrees in the city, while they are only 36 percent the city’s female population. Comparatively, only 17 percent of black women, 14 percent of Native American women and 8 percent of Hispanic women had completed four or more years of college.
Advocates say that leaders need to tackle the many social issues affecting women of color at their source, starting with education.
“From health problems to prostitution, all these issues are intertwined and have an impact on each other,” says Rogers. “We cannot continue to ignore the lives of a majority of women living in New York City. The quality of their lives impacts children, families and the health of our communities.”
Marieme Daff is a free-lance writer based in New York.
For more information:
Women of Color Policy Network:
Kaiser Family Foundation–
Women’s Health Policy:
4Women.gov–National Women’s Health Information Center: