By Dominique Derbigny and Jocelyn Frye
Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity
To be frank, women fuel this economy. Women with children, especially women of color, are increasingly likely to be breadwinners for their families and they provide more child care and domestic labor at home than men. Businesses owned by women of color are growing at faster rates than other firms, and women make a majority of consumer purchases. Despite these and other significant contributions to the U.S. economy, the experiences of women during this crisis have been often overlooked in the federal response to COVID-19. And Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American and Pacific Islander women have been left out of the discussion altogether.
We rely on women of color to serve us on the front lines of this pandemic as home health and personal care aides, child care workers, grocery store clerks, registered nurses, and nursing assistants—positions where they regularly risk exposure to COVID-19. Yet, our government has failed to ensure that our essential workers have proper protective equipment to keep them safe on the job. Further, many of these workers are excluded from the emergency paid sick time and child care leave provisions in the COVID-19 relief packages signed into law, forcing them to choose between earning income and taking necessary time off to care for themselves or their loved ones if they fall ill.
Women of color are over represented in low-paid jobs, in industries such as retail, hospitality, and restaurants that have laid off millions of workers. Unemployment is rising faster for women and people of color, and women of color generally experience higher rates of unemployment than white women, leaving them and their families in a precarious financial position. This trend has been evident during the pandemic with initial unemployment data showing larger jumps in unemployment and higher unemployment rates overall for many women of color.
The historical, and continuing, prevalence of racism and sexism fueling public policies and institutional practices—such as redlining and steering in the housing market, employment discrimination, denial of access to credit and loans, and unequal pay—have disenfranchised women of color, making it nearly impossible no matter how hard they work to build significant savings and wealth. As a result, two-thirds of Black and Latinx women do not have enough savings to live at the poverty line for three months if they lose their jobs. Income helps people get by day to day, but in the absence of income, savings and wealth help people manage periods of economic hardship. Women of color have far fewer financial resources to draw on if they lose their jobs, and are more susceptible to lay-offs due to the sectors and positions they’ve been relegated to.
This legacy of dismissal, disenfranchisement, and dehumanization has left women of color particularly vulnerable to this public health and economic crisis. Long-standing structural inequities have created an uneven landscape that makes it difficult for women of color to secure jobs with living wages and access to employer-based benefits like health insurance and paid leave. Deep-rooted cultural attitudes and stereotypes about women of color have devalued their work and de prioritized their needs. This must change.
Our economy relies on women of color as workers, consumers, breadwinners, and caregivers, but our policies consistently fail to center their needs. To ensure that future COVID-19 policy interventions are responsive to the challenges facing women of color, the next relief package must:
Provide premium pay for all frontline workers and take steps to ensure that essential workers work in safe environments.
Cover workers excluded in the current paid sick and child care leave provisions and make these benefits permanent.
Provide additional relief to support child care providers, especially as the school year winds down and children are home for the summer.
Strengthen family tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, and include ITIN filers.
Freeze rent payments and provide direct rental assistance for tenants in unsubsidized housing.
Reduce the jail and prison population by releasing inmates who are not a danger to public safety and releasing people from immigrant detention facilities.
Provide additional, and continuous, recovery rebates for all residents until the crisis is over.
Cancel student loan debt.
Require comprehensive data collection to better track the disproportionate health and economic effects of COVID-19.
Ensure vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination protections, including protections against caregiver discrimination, through regular reporting and oversight.
These changes are possible, it is a matter of political will. This pandemic has exposed the fissures in our social and economic systems, and both immediate relief and long-term permanent policy reforms are needed to generate a solid post-pandemic economy. Now is the time to embody the type of society and economy that we desperately need, one that is equitable, supportive, and that enables everyone to live a dignified quality of life. Policymakers must center women of color in ongoing discussions about interventions and resources needed. When we put women of color at the center, we all rise.