In This “She-Cession”, The Focus Should Not Be On Husbands

The labor market is in a “she-cession”. Women bear the brunt of the pandemic. Yet President Trump promised “we’re getting your husband’s back to work” at a rally in Michigan. This dated vision of women’s participation in the labor market ignores the plight of millions of women, especially single women. It also means that policy responses are not anchored in reality and fail to implement what is actually needed to ensure that all workers, but especially women can safely go back to work.

Importantly, President Trump’s view of women’s role in the labor market is nothing new. It is in fact in line with the approach taken by the last conservative administration of President George W. Bush. He had a consistent record of using platitudes to obscure policies economically harmful to women, an approach labeled stealth misogyny by one reporter. This approach included policies like an ultimately never passed job flexibility plan that would have offered workers paid time off rather than paid overtime at their employer’s discretion. This theoretically would have increased the possibility that employers could play favorites, granting one employee time off when they needed it while denying it to another. But the George W. Bush administration also defunded civil rights enforcement to protect against discrimination, eliminating key labor market protections for women and people of color. President Trump’s vision of a labor force, where husbands work, extends this outdated vision of paid work that ignores the lived reality of tens of millions of women. 

Women have been a growing and critical part of the paid and innovative workforce. They are the majority of college graduates. More than 60% of mothers with children under the age of two work. And women made up the majority of workers, until the pandemic and recession hit. The economy heavily depends on women’s hard work.

Yet women still face massive obstacles in the labor market. Women get paid less than men do for the same work, making it harder for them to put money aside for an emergency or their own future. And childcare options are often limited, forcing many women, who still bear more caregiving responsibilities than men do, to choose between their careers and caring for their children. In a similar vein, women are more likely to care for parents and other family members than is the case for men, again disrupting their earnings and requiring them to dip into their savings. Women, especially women of color, also have worse health insurance coverage and face greater biases in the health care system, resulting in worse care, higher costs and more disruptions to their work. Women have less financial security because of lower earnings and savings and because of higher risks and costs.  

The recession now makes a bad situation much worse. Women have lost more jobs than men have during the recession and women’s jobs, particularly those of women of color, are coming back at a slower pace than is the case for men. By September 2020, women, other than Black women, had higher unemployment rates than men (see figure below). For example, Latina women had an unemployment rate of 11.5% then, compared to 8.9% for Latino men (see figure below). Women’s earnings have taken a big hit in the pandemic, after they already were worse off relative to men.

Despite President Trump’s and other conservatives’ view that women are typically married and reliant on their husbands’ work, many women are single and often single mothers, who need their jobs. Yet the recession has hurt single women more than married women. The unemployment rates for single women tended to be higher than for married women. For instance, 14.0% of never married Latina women were unemployed in September 2020, compared to 11.7% of married Latina women (see figure below). The single women, who President Trump especially overlooked in his remarks, are the ones that suffer the most in this recession.

It is not just a worse labor market experience that hurts women more in this recession. They also face higher costs from a lack of childcare, greater demands on their time from other caregiving responsibilities and more exposure to the virus in jobs that do not allow for easy social distancing. The recession has shone a spotlight on the varied financial strains women are under and policymakers need to focus on easing those burdens.

Women will not get the necessary help from federal policymakers, though, if those policymakers do not see them as a crucial and massive share of the labor force. Espousing a vision that is unmoored from reality also means that the administration and many of its allies do not focus on the necessary steps to help women in a recession that hurts them more than men. Well-designed economic policies amid the lingering deep recession will focus on the needs of women. It will make it easier to qualify for unemployment insurance benefits. It will reinstate expanded unemployment insurance benefits. It will provide financial support for childcare centers on the brink of failing. It will make sure that people can take paid time off when they get sick or somebody in their family needs help. Enacting legislation that addresses workers’, especially women’s financial struggles, is already overdue in part because those struggles do not factor into the President’s vision.

Another rescue package is only a first step. Women will need more help to ensure that they are not the ones left holding the bag when things go sideways in the future. They deserve equal pay, for example. A lack of equal pay is a huge cost to families, especially to children, because breadwinning mothers are the norm. Congress will also need to provide more support for childcare and for people with other caregiving responsibilities. Equal pay legislation and caregiving supports should be much higher priorities than espousing outdated notions of women in the workforce.

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