COVID-19 Could Set Back Women’s Economic Progress for Decades

Nothing in recent decades has shown the extent to which our care industry is underfunded and undervalued quite like the coronavirus pandemic. In the midst of a public health crisis when the life-saving and sustaining work of health care, elder care and child care is most needed, it is out of reach for many. Accessing adequate care services is, to put it simply, often a matter of life and death.

The first hard truth about care work is that although it lies at the center of every social and economic structure our society depends on — maintaining our health, raising our children, preparing the next generation of workers — it is pushed to the margins. In the last year, federal and many state budgets have proposed steep cuts to child care specifically and the social safety net more generally, just as these care services are in more demand than ever. National child care costs have skyrocketed while availability of openings has plummeted. We are on the cusp of a severe long-term care crisis for aging generations. And we are experiencing a shortage of care workers, who are chronically underpaid and under supported in their work.

Nonetheless, when family members need care, people must navigate these brutal constraints to find it. And if they find it is too expensive or simply unavailable — as plenty do — many will still go to great lengths to provide it.

Here lies the second hard truth about care work: much of it is performed as unrecognized and unpaid labor, invisible to formal structures of employment. It is performed in the early mornings and late evenings, caring for their elderly parents, grandparents or family living with disabilities, and over the weekends and after school, caring for young children. It is also disproportionately performed by women — to the tune of a lost $1.5 trillion in wages in the U.S. annually.

Renowned feminist scholar Silvia Federici, who helped organize the “Wages for Housework” campaign that saw women homemakers protesting for pay in the 1970s, has argued for decades that unpaid care work lays the foundation of gendered economic inequality. “As women, we know that the working day for capital does not necessarily produce a paycheck,” she writes in her seminal work, Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle:

Housework is much more than house cleaning … it is taking care of our children — the future workers — assisting them from birth through their school years, ensuring that they too perform in the ways expected of them under capitalism. This means that behind every factory, behind every school, behind every office or mine there is the hidden work of millions of women who have consumed their life, their labor, producing the labor power that works in those factories, schools, offices, or mines.

Federici’s work illustrates how the second truth about care work makes way for the first: Patriarchal gender roles place greater care work expectations upon women, and this feminization enables the work to be systemically undervalued and exploited. This dismissal pushes care work, even in its waged forms, to the margins of our government’s policy and pocketbook priorities. Why fund something that you expect women to provide for free?

All of this was true before the onset of COVID-19. Add a public health emergency and economic crisis into the mix and these inequities have only become more entrenched. Without an immediate injection of relief funds, half of existing child care centers might shutter their doors, slashing 4.5 million available slots in centers for kids. Ninety-three percent of child care workers are women, with almost half being women of color, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department. Women will be impacted negatively both as employees and patrons of the child care industry, because when the doors are shuttered and children remain at home and not in child care facilities, we know who that care work typically falls on.

Women are still struggling to recover economically from COVID-19, and there are no signs this will happen anytime soon. They are the majority of those who lost jobs since February, and have not returned to pre-COVID employment levels, according to a July economic report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The report also showed that employment levels in child care services are still a quarter below their pre-COVID levels. As more facilities close across the country and families are forced to take on full-time child care responsibilities while continuing to work, this labor is falling disproportionately on women. Fall is approaching and it remains unlikely that school systems will remove some of the burden of child care, and some advocates are predicting serious consequences for women’s paid employment and workforce gender equity. The reverberations could be felt for decades.

Director of Women’s Rights at the Canadian Labour Congress Vicky Smallman has worked to integrate gender analysis into labor struggles for decades. For her, the fight for better recognition of care work in labor policies is not a new one — but what is new is the pandemic. “There’s no way around it — this crisis has hit women’s labor force participation hard and it’s only going to get worse in the fall. I fear we will be losing a generation of women from the workforce,” she told Truthout. She pointed out that although many families were able to build short-term resilience plans, these will not last through the end of the year for many. “While many families could muddle through the spring and summer, juggling remote work or reducing hours, taking unpaid or paid leave, it’s not sustainable. We are stressed, exhausted and at the end of our rope. By the time September comes, it will be six months — a half a year — that families have been home with their kids. Something has to give.”

Smallman says we are just beginning to understand what the long-term, macroeconomic implications for women might be. “We know from research that women are more likely to reduce hours or leave work in order to care for kids or others. The outcome of this is reduced incomes and lifetime earnings for women and a widened gender wage gap, poor mental health outcomes for those who continue to try and juggle paid work and remote learning, reduced household spending which will slow the economy overall and have significant consequences for small businesses and communities.”

These realities only add another layer to the way coronavirus has already magnified and entrenched race- and class-based inequities. For working-class and low-income women burdened with additional child care labor at home in the fall, paying for child care is often an unthinkable expense. “For those who have little choice but to keep working outside the home in order to support their family, we have the potential for increased infection rates,” Smallman says, “and since so many folks working in essential services or low-wage, precarious jobs are racialized, this means that we will continue to see more infections and higher COVID-19 death rates among marginalized people.”

One state has started looking at the economic impact of coronavirus on single working mothers. Khara Jabola-Carolus, the executive director of the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women and the organizer behind the first explicitly feminist economic recovery plan in the country, is driving this research. “Eighty-nine percent [of single mothers] reported that their ability to perform paid work has been compromised by caregiving responsibilities during the crisis,” she told Truthout. “Ninety-two percent of single moms surveyed in Hawaii reported that they have lost financial independence during the crisis.” The loss of financial independence has gendered repercussions as well; findings have shown job loss among women is associated with greater likelihood of experiencing domestic abuse. Previous economic recessions have seen stark increases in intimate-partner violence and abusive behavior among men. As Jabola-Carolus warned, “Job loss for women can also lead to a loss of bodily integrity and agency.”

This job loss could trigger economic consequences decades from now. “One consequence of lost labor force attachment is reduced access to social protection systems, many of which rely on contributions — if you don’t pay into unemployment insurance or public pensions, you don’t have access when you need it,” Smallman said. “This means deepened poverty for those who are already most vulnerable — elderly women, precarious workers, informal workers, sex workers and domestic workers, often also people with multiple and intersecting identities.” In other words, the consequences for economic devastation are extremely gendered, and may well last well beyond the potential development of a vaccine.

Both Smallman and Jabola-Carolus say that with a magnifying glass on “essential” work right now, there is real opportunity for shifting attitudes and policies. “I will say that I’m certainly hearing a lot more about child care now from leadership across labor movements and that is encouraging,” Smallman said. “Leaders from unions representing workers in all sectors have talked about the reality that there can be no recovery without child care.”

“Even if women’s material conditions worsen in the short-term, if we can organize women who are being naturally radicalized by the crisis, then we can better prevent long-term consequences by shaping funding, programming and economic reconstruction,” said Jabola-Carolus. “We need to build a completely new, centralized and free child care system. We need a suite of policies that explicitly aim to transition society away from total dependency on waged work and force a redistribution of care.”

Progressives and feminists have long pushed for a universal, free and accessible child care system as a matter of gender justice and economic equity. Due to coronavirus highlighting the essential nature of care work, we are even starting to see reflective shifts in mainstream policy platforms. On July 21, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced an economic plan to invest in care for small children, older adults and family members with disabilities as part of his broad economic recovery proposals.

Josephine Kalipeni, policy director at Caring Across Generations, has long been at the forefront of care work activism. “For the first time in modern history, a party’s presidential nominee has announced a $775 billion plan to rebuild our nation’s caregiving economy that addresses some of the most urgent paid and unpaid caregiving crises families are facing at this moment.” Kalipeni noted, though, that more sweeping policy solutions are necessary to truly make child care accessible and affordable for all. “The proposal is light on funding details and doesn’t account for the oncoming elder boom and other demographic shifts that will greatly increase caregiving needs in the next decade. The plan doesn’t cover middle class families who need long-term support services, but lack the financial resources to weather a long-term health crisis and don’t qualify for Medicare and make too much to qualify for Medicaid.” These kinds of policy changes will continue to be advocated for by activists, who know that Biden’s plan, though significant in its scope, must still be strengthened.

“Women have mobilized and struggled for decades, and progress toward economic justice has been painfully slow. Now the hard-fought gains we’ve made are being set back decades, and despite feminists sounding the alarm, the response from political leaders has been little more than shrugged shoulders,” Smallman said. “It’s not too late to turn this around, but it will take considerable political will and leadership. It’s up to all of us to create the conditions to make this change in political will possible, to demand better of our decision-makers.”