The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

America's Working Poor

Examining race, gender and class in work-based inequality
  • Sociologist Enobong (Anna) Branch

One thread of Branch’s work challenges the common notion that black women are poor because they do not work. Indeed, they have always worked but were actively restricted to jobs that kept them in poverty.

While scholars and policy makers concerned with poverty no longer restrict their focus to joblessness, analyses of working poverty have been slow to consider how rising employment insecurity may uniquely shape the experience of working poverty for black and white women. UMass Amherst sociologist Enobong (Anna) Branch examines how factors of race, gender and class shape work-based inequality in America. She strives to explain the ways these demographics are embedded in multilevel social processes that lead to occupational segregation, social stratification, and differential life chances.

Branch’s 2011 book, Opportunity Denied: Limiting Black Women to Devalued Work (Rutgers University Press) examines labor force experiences of black women compared to white women, white men, and black men from 1860-2008. Says Branch, “It merges empirical data with rich historical detail and reveals how black women’s lack of occupational opportunities was shaped by the dynamics of race and gender across time.”

The first book to comprehensively examine this topic, it has been well received by sociological scholars and was a finalist for the American Sociological Association’s 2012 Distinguished Contribution to Scholarship Award for two sections: the Race, Gender, and Class; and Organizations, Occupations, and Work. The book has given Branch the opportunity to share her work through blogs, newspapers, magazines, and radio shows around the world.

Branch’s work challenges the common notion that black women are poor because they do not work. Indeed, they have always worked but were actively restricted to jobs that kept them in poverty. As an Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR) Scholar in 2012-13, Branch developed a project with Caroline Hanley of the College of William and Mary that looks at how the growth of “bad” jobs in the U.S. economy from 1970 to 2010 created new avenues of racial inequality among low wage women.

Branch and Hanley found that although black women are overrepresented in low-wage work compared to white women, low-wage white women are more likely to be engaged in insecure work – defined as under-employment/ part-time work (less than 35 hours per week or less than 30 weeks per year), unincorporated self-employment, and employment in the personal services industry than low-wage black women. In 1970 roughly 50 percent of low-wage white women were engaged in insecure work, compared to 35 percent of low-wage black women; by 2000, these numbers had grown to roughly 78 and 68 percent, respectively. While black and white women are unevenly represented in insecure work, research suggests that they enter it for different reasons reflecting flexibility and constraint.

Yet, work and stratification scholars tend to view employment insecurity as a black box; often assuming it is an outcome of economic restructuring and the growing prevalence of “bad jobs.”  Branch argues that flexibility needs to be disentangled from economic constraint in theorizing employment insecurity – insecure work may be preferable for some women since it offers flexibility to balance family demands while for other women insecure work reflects employment and economic constraints despite a preference for secure work.  Given the compositional differences - such as work experience, number of children, education, and partner status between black women and white women – Branch’s research suggests that this flexibility versus constraint dichotomy may center on race, with white women engaging in insecure work for its flexibility while black women face economic constraints.

Despite Branch’s dedication to her research, she was not always on the sociological path. With an undergraduate degree in biology, Branch was preparing to enter medicine. However, while teaching at a middle/high school in the South Bronx and earning her master’s at Columbia University, she realized that what really intrigued her was the importance of the relationship between what happens in the classroom, the surrounding community and the economic security of the family. Ultimately, she decided to attend graduate school at University at Albany, SUNY for a PhD in sociology. “I decided that gaining a better understanding of the causes of educational and economic inequality, which are inseparable for minority communities, and working to address those issues were what I really wanted to do.”

College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Banner photo credit: Revista Semana. Colombia.