Covid, Race, and the Revolution

A special issue on gender equity and the pandemic’s impact on women of color and their families, in this week’s Covid, Race, and the Revolution.

Issue No 42. March 3, 2021

Economic Recovery Must Put Women of Color First

By Elena Chávez Quezada and Heather McCulloch

By now, we’ve all seen the headlines: the pandemic has been catastrophic for women, with every month revealing shocking numbers of women being laid off or leaving the workforce entirely.

Before the start of the pandemic, working women played a critical role in the economy and the economic security of families. They made up the majority of the civilian nonfarm workforce and were earning advanced degrees and starting businesses at a higher rate than men. At the same time, women were more likely to be breadwinners and caregivers than ever before: three out of five Latinx and White mothers were key contributors to their household’s income and four out of five Black mothers were sole or primary earners.

Despite their outsized economic role, Black and Latinx women had the thinnest financial cushion at the onset of the crisis. They had little or no savings — just pennies on the dollar compared to White men and White women — so they had few resources to rely on when their income was disrupted. They were hit first and hardest by layoffs, as they were disproportionately represented in consumer-facing sectors such as hospitality, food services, and retail.  

Black women, who have always had the highest levels of labor force participation among women, lost almost one million jobs between February 2020 and January 2021, a 9.5 percent decline, and Latinx women lost 8.3 percent of the jobs they held before the crisis. Today, Latinx and Black women face the highest rates of unemployment, at 8.8 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, compared to 5.1 percent for White women. Asian American women are the most likely to have been unemployed for more than six months due to the recession. The full impact on Indigenous and subgroups of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women is unknown because they are largely missing from federal data sets. 

The economic insecurity of families and women of color is not based on individual choices in a so-called “free market” economy. It’s rooted in centuries of racist and sexist policies and private sector practices that systematically excluded them from building wealth: slavery, Jim Crow, racially restrictive covenants, and public policies such as Social Security that originally left out farm and domestic workers, mostly people of color. Laws that excluded women from accessing higher education, home mortgages, and business credit in their own names until the 1970s and 1980s further contributed to the extreme disparities facing women of color today.

S&P Global research showed that prior to this recession, the US economy would be $1.6 trillion larger if women entered and stayed in the labor force at the same rate as Norway, and that addressing gender inequality in the workplace could add 5 to 10 percent to the nominal GDP. Bringing women back into — and keeping them in — the labor force is a first step toward building economic stability for families and shoring up our economy.

But in order to build a strong, equitable economy that benefits everyone, we need to center those who have been most marginalized in our policy solutions. That means crafting economic policies that benefit Black, Latinx, Indigenous, AAPI, LGBTQ+, and immigrant women without documentation who are experiencing the worst effects of historical exclusion and marginalization. Lifting the minimum wage to at least $15 an hour and eliminating the subminimum wage, which is rooted in slavery, is one approach that would disproportionately benefit Black and Brown women, who are overrepresented in low-wage jobs. A  Federal Job Guarantee and expanded access to unions would increase their access to better jobs and strengthen their capacity to negotiate for higher wages and benefits.

But if we truly want to “build back better” we need bold solutions that address the legacy and realities of racism and sexism that have left women of color with so little wealth to begin with. Baby bonds and reparations would build wealth for Black, Indigenous, and other families of color from whom it was stolen generations ago. The nation needs public acknowledgment of, and apology for, the harms of our ancestors so we can all heal and move forward together.

Another approach to building back better would be to invest in an equitable “care infrastructure”— national policies that enable workers to stay on the job when loved ones need care. Today, the US and South Korea are the only two OECD countries with no national paid sick leave policy, and the US is the only advanced economy without paid family leave. The lack of paid medical and family leave has become a national crisis in the face of overwhelming demands of child and elder care during the pandemic.

Public investment in physical infrastructure such as roads, bridges, rail, and water systems, is a tried-and-true stimulus strategy that addresses public needs and creates jobs. Infrastructure repair is sorely needed after decades of disinvestment, particularly in communities of color. But a traditional infrastructure program would not address job losses among women, who make up less than 10 percent of workers in the construction trades and are concentrated in low-paid administrative positions.  
A complementary approach, public investment in our nation’s care infrastructure — including in universal paid medical and family leave; universal childcare; long-term supports and services for elders; and increased wages, benefits, and opportunities for care workers to unionize — would enable women to reenter and stay in the workforce.  The approach would not only help to fuel our recovery, but also respond to the public need for caregiving supports, which was trending upward even pre-pandemic. Increasing the supply and quality of caregiving jobs would produce twice as many jobs as traditional bricks-and-mortar stimulus investment. And women of color are more likely to capture those jobs created, as they have always been disproportionately represented among care workers.

In short, investing in care infrastructure is an efficient and equitable jobs strategy.

A new national campaign to build an equitable care infrastructure is being led by Caring Across Generations and a dozen national gender equity organizations. A national coalition, made up of mothers, is organizing for supports. Leading women in entertainment are calling for a “Marshall Plan for Moms” within the first 100 days of the Biden administration. And millennial men are stepping up to share their stories and vocalize their support. Congressman Jamaal Bowman, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other congressional leaders are joining advocates in calling for deep public investment in a comprehensive care infrastructure that supports caregivers.

Now is the time for bold policies that pave the way to an equitable economy for all and maximize opportunities for women of color to work, earn, save, invest in their families and communities, and prosper.

Elena Chávez Quezada is Vice President of Programs with the San Francisco Foundation.  
Heather McCulloch is the Founder and Executive Director of Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap.

News, Analysis, and Commentary, Curated from Around the Web

A victory for low-wage mothers

What are women’s top priorities for the Biden administration? Affordable, high-quality health care, rebuilding the economy, job creation, and racial justice, finds a new national survey by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Sixty-nine percent of the women surveyed support paid leave to have a child, recover from illness, or care for a family member. Raising the minimum wage is a key issue for Black and Latinx women.

The $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill passed by the House last weekend includes provisions that advocates and women lawmakers have pushed for years, including an ambitious one-year expansion of the child tax credit to make it available for the poorest families, The 19th reports. The plan isn’t perfect — it excludes many immigrant children — but researchers say it could cut child poverty in half,  Zach Tilly writes on the Children’s Defense Fund blog. The measure is a victory for low-wage mothers, particularly those of color, and advocates hope it opens the door to a permanent child allowance.

After House Democrats were told that Senate rules barred them from including a minimum-wage hike in the relief package, advocates, including One Fair Wage, She the People, Black Women’s Roundtable, Women’s March, and others mobilized quickly. They successfully pushed the House to keep provisions to raise the minimum wage and abolish subminimum wages, even though the measures will meet fierce opposition in the Senate. Nearly 60 percent of the 32 million workers who would benefit from the wage increase are women, disproportionately Black and Brown. “This moment represents a unique opportunity for lawmakers to make lasting change in the lives of some of America’s most valuable, and underpaid, workers,” In These Times writes.

Los Angeles County approved a $5 an hour “hazard pay” increase for grocery workers, joining about a half-dozen other California cities that have passed or are considering mandates to put money behind the hero worship for frontline workers, the Los Angeles Times reports. Women hold more than half the nation’s grocery store jobs. United Food and Commercial Workers International, which represents 1.3 million workers in frontline industries, is leading the drive for higher pay.

Struggling small businesses get a boost

For two weeks beginning today, only small businesses may apply for loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, the Chicago Tribune reports. It’s a move toward reversing the inequities of the federal pandemic-era loan program, which famously handed out millions to the nation’s largest corporations while leaving behind hard-hit small firms. The Biden administration is also making loans more accessible to sole proprietors, the majority of whom are women and people of color, and to people with conviction records, those who are behind on student loan payments, and US residents with visas and green cards, Forbes writes.

Women bear the burdens of remote schooling

Women with school-age children overwhelmingly shoulder responsibility for overseeing remote learning: 63 percent said they were in charge of supervising their children, compared with just 29 percent of men, according to a Marketplace-Edison poll

As the anniversary of school shutdowns approaches, frustrated parents in the Philadelphia region are suing to reopen classrooms, protesting at school board meetings, running to serve on the boards, and even moving, the New York Times reports. Aquené Tyler, a Black mother and hair stylist in North Philadelphia, tells the paper her neighborhood schools had insufficient resources before the pandemic and were closed intermittently because of asbestos contamination; now her children are so lonely and overwhelmed by learning online that she’s relocating to Florida, where the state government has mandated in-person learning.

On the other hand, for some Black students remote learning is a refuge from the racial hostility and discrimination they encountered in school, and they’re thriving, NPR reports. Sharnissa Secrett said her son’s teachers used to reprimand him for talking. "You look in my baby's eyes, when he used to come home, he was tired...mentally tired," she told the network. Now, in virtual classrooms, he’s energized, more confident, and happier. 

In California, day care centers are seeing an influx of older children, and workers — most of them low-wage women of color — are pressed into teaching, tutoring, and other educational duties for which they are not paid, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Across the country, students are vanishing from public schools in unprecedented numbers, a trend that could widen racial gaps in achievement and hurt school budgets, which are based on daily attendance, the Washington Post writes. North Carolina, for example, has lost track of more than 10,000 students. Districts are aggressively searching for children who aren’t showing up online or in classrooms, but most outreach relies on email, text messages, social media, and letters, which require families to have a cell phone, web access, a stable address, and, generally, English proficiency.

As experts continue to debate the risk of coronavirus transmission in K-12 schools, a new study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that in-person learning contributed to an almost 300 percent spike in Covid cases in Cobb County, Georgia, according to The 19th. The podcast The Daily explores when children will get Covid vaccines — a critical measure to achieve herd immunity.

Women of color drive transformative change

Three Black transgender women in San Francisco revolutionized the historic and rapidly gentrifying Tenderloin, organizing to establish the world’s first legally recognized transgender cultural district, ABC News reports.  Founders Aria Sa'id, Honey Mahogany, and Janetta Johnson are developing initiatives that empower transgender people, provide job opportunities, foster leadership skills, and preserve the heritage of the neighborhood that saw the nation’s first documented uprising of transgender and queer people against police harassment and abuse. 

This month, the district will start a a rental subsidy program for trans and gender-nonconforming tenants, according to Bay Area Reporter.

The California Black Women’s Collective, a coalition of federal and state  legislators, other elected officials, and political leaders are launching an effort to get more Black women elected in the state, amplify the priorities of Black women, and change systems and structures of oppression and marginalization, the Sacramento Observer reports. “Like Shirley Chisholm said, when you get inside it’s not about playing by the rules, it’s about changing those rules because they weren’t made for you and me,” Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) told a virtual gathering of the group. 

As Black History Month ends and Women’s History Month begins, Forbes profiles women over 50 who have taken ownership of the fight for racial justice and equity. Among them: civil rights leader Marian Wright Edelman, farmworker union leader Dolores Huerta, and Leona Tate, who desegregated an all-White elementary school in New Orleans as a six-year-old. She started a foundation that bought the school building last year and plans to open a center for civil rights education and racial healing.

The Lily tells the story of 10-year-old Iris Haq Lukolyo, the only Black student in her Texas fifth grade class. When a social studies lesson about the Founding Fathers didn’t mention slavery she spoke up, only to be dismissed by her teacher. She wrote an essay about the experience, which was published in a youth journal and went viral. It called on teachers not to shut down students who ask tough, courageous questions, and urged them to include “the complex — and yes, racist history” in lessons about the country’s past.  “Students deserve to learn the ugly sides of our history so we don’t repeat the same mistakes.”

Continuing to educate the public

Stay Covered Together, a national public education campaign created by the Harlem Children’s Zone, aims to drive awareness about the importance of wearing masks to stay safe from Covid and protect one another. The NAACP, StriveTogether, and PolicyLink, along with respected community organizations across the country, are partners in the effort to protect communities most impacted by the devastating effects of the virus — communities challenged by poverty and economic insecurity — by enlisting everyone to play a part. 

Please share with your networks and send your ideas and feedback. And follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. #COVIDandRace

We hope you find this series an important tool for keeping up with news about the virus and its impact on communities we serve. As a non-profit organization, PolicyLink is honored to provide resources to support the needs of our nation's 100 million economically insecure individuals. Generous partners like you make our work possible. 

Michael McAfee and Angela Glover Blackwell are grateful for the contributions of Fran Smith, Milly Hawk Daniel, Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Jennifer Pinto, Heather Tamir, Ana Louie, Janet Dickerson, and Mark Jones to produce the COVID-19 & Race commentary.