As the covid-19 crisis continues to ravage America unfettered by any meaningful government assistance or intervention, women—particularly low-income mothers and especially women of color—remain among the groups most affected by unemployment and lack of childcare. And both the virus and failures to provide systemic support for those impacted will likely be the source of financial hardship for decades, if not generations, to come.
According to a recent report by the New York Times, the industries hardest hit by covid-19 shutdowns—food service, retail, and health care—also tend to be the ones in which women far outnumber men in terms of employment. And even as these businesses see tentative reopenings across the country, “there were still 4.5 million fewer women employed in October than there were a year ago, compared with 4.1 million men,” according to the Times. Unemployment rates are disproportionately high for Black women at 9.2 percent and Latinas at 9 percent, as opposed to white women at 5.6 percent. In an additional report, the Times found that school and daycare closures mean that a great many families are without childcare, leaving the task primarily to mothers. These factors combined could, according to experts, create a gap in the workforce and women’s lifetime earned income that could have negative repercussions far into the future:
“We are creating inequality 20 years down the line that is even greater than we have today,” Betsey Stevenson, a professor of economics and former member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers, told the Times. “This is how inequality begets inequality.”
Though women currently make up about half of the country’s workforce, the Census Bureau says that one-third of unemployed women ages 22-45 cite child care demands as their reason for unemployment, while just 12 percent of men said the same. And for those in the service industry, where hours vary week to week—the jobs that cannot be done from home and which carry the highest risk of covid infection—are saddled with the additional expense and worry of finding childcare, which has created a nearly impossible situation.
In a survey from last spring, eight out of 10 mothers told the Times that they were primarily responsible for managing their children’s remote education, with seven in 10 saying they were responsible for the majority of childcare. Additionally, there are 1.6 million fewer mothers at work this fall than there were last year, according to the Times analysis.
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And even if there is a covid vaccine on the horizon in the near future and workplaces begin to re-open, those left without work and childcare for a year will have to begin the process of reapplying for work, which will likely require either money for childcare, likely scarce after months of unemployment, or a better system providing working mothers a means of returning to the labor force. As the Times notes, during World War II, for example, when women were expected to take the manufacturing and office jobs as men were enlisted to fight, the government stepped up to provide “a far-reaching federally subsidized network of nurseries and child care centers in nearly every state.” That support naturally disappeared as soon as the war ended and women were expected to return to their roles as caretakers.
While the Times ends on a positive note about the covid-19 crisis acting as a wakeup call for our country to catch up to other rich countries in terms of paid leave, subsidized childcare, and simply prioritizing humans’ lives over their usefulness to employees, those changes would require completely rebuilding the current system. And while America has long been due for a turning point in which the financial security of women and needs of children matter, the recent maskless protests in which Americans screamed for the right to kill their neighbors will suggest that much of the country’s citizenship will not be growing a conscience any time soon, which creates little impetus for the government to do so, either.