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Hawaii Considers an Explicitly Feminist Plan for COVID-Era Economic Recovery

The plan recognizes the current crisis as the “moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.”

The plan recognizes the current crisis as the "moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality."

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“The road to economic recovery should not be across women’s backs,” reads the first sentence of Hawaii’s Feminist Economic Recovery Plan.

As states put forth dozens of recovery plans that all aim to redress the economic devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hawaii’s remains the first and only that is explicitly “feminist.”

The plan — which was released on April 14 by the Hawaii Department of Human Services’ State Commission on the Status of Women — does not seek to reinstate a status quo riddled with inequality. Instead it recognizes the current crisis as the “moment to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.”

It calls for a universal basic income, countering the systemic wage and wealth gender gap. It calls for free, publicly provided child care for essential workers, a nearly $25/hour minimum wage for single mothers, and the creation of public emergency funds available for high-risk groups, like undocumented women who are ineligible for the federal cash refund, domestic workers who are experiencing financial hardship, and people classified as “sex trafficking survivors who have recently exited the commercial sex industry.”

The plan calls for a reinvestment in midwifery services to provide maternal health care as hospitals become strained with pandemic response. It calls for a 20 percent pro-rata share of the state’s COVID-19-response funds to go immediately, no strings attached, to Native Hawaiian communities. The 23-page document is a vision for a new kind of economy while also conveying concrete policy recommendations, delivered directly to Hawaii legislators as they begin to apportion state funds toward recovery.

Khara Jabola-Carolus saw the writing on the wall early. Jabola-Carolus works as the executive director of the State Commission on the Status of Women, and by early March, had seen enough to know that this would be a severely gendered crisis. Women, burdened with the vast amount of unpaid care work, were most impacted by stay-at-home orders, child care and school closures. Women quarantined in abusive homes with their perpetrators had little to no access to financial and social support systems. Women were performing the majority of essential, high-risk health care positions and other essential care work positions like teaching, but weren’t even receiving enough protective equipment or livable wages. Any policy response that ignored these gendered realities would only reinforce them.

Jabola-Carolus recalls the exact moment she knew she needed to push for a feminist response. As the head of the Commission on the Status of Women, she was asked by legislators working on the state budget to provide a pro-woman plan to restructure and stimulate the economy — in less than half a day. “I was given only a few hours to answer these enormous questions and it made me damn angry. How could executives and bureaucrats, so far removed from the edge and illiterate in the struggles of women, define their future in a few hours?”

She wanted to draft the recommendations in a very different way, one that modeled a community-based consultative process that prioritized Native, immigrant and working-class women and LGBTQIA+ peoples. “We were careful to go beyond the elite, white-dominated ‘advocates’ circles,” she told Truthout. The contributors in this circle were organizers, academics, activists, midwives and mothers, representing grassroots organizations, large nonprofits, unions and government agencies.

“This is how we should be doing all of our policy making and planning,” said Kathleen Algire, director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, who was a member of the task force. “We can no longer say that ‘we can’t wait for the time community collaboration takes.’ We did it fast and we didn’t sacrifice the community to get it done.”

Mykie Ozoa, an organizer with AF3IRM Hawaii, the state’s largest grassroots feminist network, saw this collaboration as key to producing pragmatic recommendations. “The Commission was adamant that the voices of women organizing to address issues on the ground in our communities were included, and I believe it is one reason this plan is so unique and offers urgent but easily attainable recommendations.”

Within the plan itself, the attention given to care work, such as child care and elder care, is substantial. “You cannot separate women from caregiving, unpaid or paid,” said Algire, who helped draft the child care recommendations. They include universal free child care for all emergency and essential workers, paid family and sick leave, and mandated pay parity for child care workers to educators and nurses. “What we keep repeating is ‘there is no economic recovery without child care.’ For parents to go back to work, their children need to be cared for.”

Algire pointed out the stark shortage of child care spaces available in Hawaii, even before the pandemic, with space for only 1 in 37 toddlers in the state. For many, child care costs are already their second-highest expense, after rent. “When families don’t have access to safe, affordable, quality child care, they are put in an impossible situation,” Algire told Truthout. “If it’s a two-parent household, one parent will likely leave the workforce. Because women are paid less, they are typically who we see staying home.”

This often cost two-parent households a second income and many single mothers their only income, and it also impacts the employment side of the child care industry, too, where the workforce is mostly women. “Like many other professions, you may see men owning or serving as directors of large centers, but the primary workforce is women,” Algire said. “Child care is a low-paying job and [that fact] is a disgrace. These are the people we are entrusting our children’s lives to and they should be paid more than minimum wage.”

The plan emphasizes that the industry cannot return to this unsustainable “normal” — state economic policies must help it change. “If a community, state or country wants to see workforce participation like we had [pre-pandemic], child care as an industry will need support. It will need to be subsidized,” Algire said. “The folks that are supporting, teaching, guiding, caring and loving our kids deserve better. Caring for children is hard, draining work. It is undervalued because it is seen as ‘women’s work.’ We’ve got to change that.”

Health care for women and LGBTQIA+ people is also centered in the plan, with significant attention paid to supporting maternal health services in the state. Tanya Smith-Johnson, who worked at an organization called The Big Push for Midwives, told Truthout that maternal care policy must include deep and consistent consultation with pregnant and birthing people in order to fully address their needs, especially Black and Native people, who face additional marginalization within the maternal health care system.

In fact, one of the five key recommendations made in diversifying and reshaping the economy is “to harness the role of midwifery to improve deficits in maternal and neonatal health care in Hawaii, especially in rural areas.” The plan’s recommendations include ensuring that insurance companies and Medicaid cover midwifery services fully, and matching hospital-based midwives with community midwives to meet the increasing demand for out-of-hospital birth options, as many who are pregnant wish to give birth out of hospitals to reduce COVID-19 transmission risk.

The writers of the plan wanted the word “feminism” front and center — in the report itself and in the conversations it will spur. “If the plan isn’t feminist, it’s patriarchal and will fail to deliver a resilient, strong economy,” Jabola-Carolus said, and urged that the individual policy recommendations put forth cannot be removed from the systemic critique that “feminism” actually articulates. “Feminism, in terms of policy, is mostly stuff that has broad public support, but we need to say ‘feminist’ in order to actually talk about the culture surrounding those policies. It has to be about root causes,” Jabola-Carolus said.

Take paid family leave, for example. It’s an incredibly popular policy, and would decrease one form of gender inequality in the workplace, where women are often forced out of careers in order to perform unpaid care work for family members. But if paid family leave is not introduced as an explicitly feminist policy, it can erase the broader structures of inequality that allow other forms of workplace discrimination to persist. It just seems like one problem with one policy fix, and not part of anything systemic. For Jabola-Carolus, “this was a call to the left to be explicitly feminist in the same way that it’s finally, explicitly naming systemic racism.” She says naming feminism is critical for progressive movements’ policy platforms to adequately address institutionalized oppression.

The word “feminism” might be used in popular culture more than ever before, but this is not reflected in policy. Only one federal bill has ever been proposed that uses it: a 2017 piece of legislation to commemorate women’s rights leader Bella Abzug for her “feminist presence” in Congress.

Jabola-Carolus said she wasn’t aware of any other state-level economic plan that put feminism in its title. All of the advocates Truthout spoke to also viewed this first-time inclusion of “feminist” as hugely significant. Sarah Michal Hamid, a youth organizer who also sat on the committee, said it was “groundbreaking,” as “it means that finally a government agency is recognizing that women and non-men are unevenly burdened under our current economy, and that this needs to change.”

But the goal is for its usage in policy to be eventually commonplace, a consequence of serious gender consideration in all planning. “It shouldn’t be unique that a state plan centers women and girls. When the most marginalized are centered, everyone else’s needs will also be met,” Ozoa said. “I hope that other states use this opportunity to take stock and reprioritize.”

The women who put together the Hawaii plan do believe that their work can provide a pathway for feminists’ engagement in other states.

“I hope other states adapt it to their needs, keeping the essence of the document, because it really is a plan that is universal and necessary,” Smith-Johnson told Truthout. This might look different based on each state’s demographic, employment and industry needs, but could share common commitments to tackling economic realities that marginalize women.

For other states embarking on their own drafting processes, Hawaii’s advocates are the first to admit that there is room for these recommendations to grow. In future iterations, both Jabola-Carolus and Ozoa noted they would like to see a stronger integration of transformative justice frameworks that pursue gender-based violence prevention without relying on mass incarceration. Smith-Johnson would like to see how these recommendations could influence federal-level feminist economic policy: “Can you imagine the impact that would have?”

For now, the report lives in the halls of Hawaii’s House and Senate, as legislators review proposals and apportion COVID-19 recovery funds in the weeks that follow. “I know this plan will have a ripple effect on how we move forward,” said Algire. “Unlike other plans that will sit on a shelf and be forgotten, this will be a guiding document for years to come.”

Hamid said she hopes that the questions raised in this report reverberate all around the country. “As other governments begin this ‘road to recovery,’ they should carefully consider who is allowed on that road, and whose backs it is being built on.”

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