It’s well established by now that the burdens of the current economic downturn fall most heavily on women. Reliant on child care and more likely to occupy jobs that are vulnerable to disruption from the pandemic, women are leaving the workforce by the thousands. The consequences could be catastrophic, according to a new report from the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress.
Without government intervention, women’s lost wages could cost the economy $64.5 billion per year, researchers concluded. Not only would this prolong the country’s economic plight, it could put many women back into a position of social, political, and economic inferiority. “Maternal labor-force participation has been increasing over time steadily, but slowly; even a 5 percent decline would undo the past 25 years of progress,” researchers added.
That 5 percent decline is a real possibility if Congress — and the White House — fails to enact new relief policies. A previous CAP study found the U.S. could permanently lose as many as 4.5 million child-care slots without more stimulus funding, an outcome that would strand many women at home. The expiration of enhanced unemployment insurance at the end of July has already left families with less of a cushion, reducing household budgets and leaving parents strapped for precious resources. A lost job can also mean the loss of insurance: Between February and May, 5.4 million American workers lost health benefits. That number will grow the longer the downturn continues.
The plight of the working mother is a barometer; it signals imminent danger. Families are being swallowed up by an economic sinkhole, and right now there’s no way out. The government is responsible for providing one, but the government isn’t functional. The HEROES Act is stalled in the Senate. Democratic negotiations with the Trump administration appear to be failing, as the White House won’t budge on key provisions to any stimulus package that would be fit for purpose. President Trump, meanwhile, is ready to forget COVID, and the recession, altogether. He has declared “mission accomplished,” though in the grand tradition established by George W. Bush, that pronouncement doesn’t mean anything has improved. The president is simply tired of being embarrassed.
If families don’t get what they need, we’ll likely spend years reckoning with worsening inequality. “Pre-pandemic, child-care deserts were more likely to be in low- or moderate-income neighborhoods, predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, and rural communities. There is every reason to believe that without swift and significant government intervention, these existing inequalities will only deepen and spread,” the researchers concluded. The wage gap could get worse. More women may eventually age into poverty and find that state governments starved of tax revenue might not be able to give them much help.
But that future isn’t predetermined. It can be prevented with smart policy and a broader reconsideration of the economic dogmas that make women so vulnerable to a recession. Universal child care and health care and better protections at work won’t eliminate sexism; they’ll simply enforce a remedial lesson in equality. What’s bad for mothers is bad for everyone else, too.