by Marilyn Watkins
COVID-19 has hit the hardest smack at the intersection of racial, gender, and economic disparities, disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable amongst us. Black and Brown communities have been much more likely than whites to suffer illness and financial hardship due to COVID-19. The closure of schools and childcare facilities has put a whole generation of kids at risk while throwing a double whammy at women of all races, who provided the bulk of unpaid family care pre-COVID-19, and are now struggling to juggle work with full-time childcare plus supervision of schooling.
We need both our state and federal governments to commit to investments and policies that build health, economic security, and educational opportunity for women and children, with special emphasis on families of Color.
COVID-19 has supercharged inequality. Over the past year, the wealth of billionaires and multimillionaires has soared. Well-paid professionals, disproportionately white, are mostly drawing full salaries while safely working from home. In fact, business and professional jobs increased by 6% in Washington between December 2019 and December 2020. But restaurants, hotels, personal services, and many other sectors that typically pay much lower wages have lost jobs and hours due to COVID-19.
Across the U.S., women lost 1 million more jobs than men in 2020, with Black, Latina, and Asian women hardest hit. A Federal Reserve survey from July 2020 found that 27% of mothers expected to reduce hours or stop working altogether if schools did not resume in person in the fall, compared to 17% of fathers. Another study of dual-income heterosexual couples found that between February and April 2020, mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers — in fact, fathers’ work hours overall remained relatively stable, despite school and childcare closures.
Even before COVID-19, wage and opportunity gaps created a dire situation for single moms and their kids. According to American Community Survey data, in 2019 27% of Washington’s white single moms and their kids lived in extreme poverty below the federal poverty level, as did 32% of Black, 39% of Native American, and 42% of Latina single moms and kids.
These economic disparities have translated into tragic health results. The Washington State Department of Health reported in early February 2021 that the death rate from COVID-19 among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders was six times that of whites, among Native Americans and Latinos three to four times, and among Black Washingtonians nearly double.
An agenda for women and families that will revitalize our state economy in ways that allow all our people and communities to prosper starts with:
- Major new investments in childcare. Without working parents, businesses won’t be able to fully reopen, but parents — and especially mothers — won’t be able to get back to work and advance in their careers without childcare. Washington’s childcare system was in crisis before COVID-19 and is in a tailspin now. Families can’t afford — or often even find — quality childcare. Centers can’t afford to keep their doors open, and teachers make so little, they leave for other jobs. We need state funding to enhance teacher wages and ensure access to health insurance, increase reimbursements to providers to cover the full cost of quality care, and expand access to subsidies for working families. Passage of House Bill 1496 in our state legislature would make a good start, by taxing extraordinary profits from investments, devoting half the revenue to child care and early learning and the rest to other critical state needs.
- Pandemic-recovery funding for schools. COVID-19 and remote learning has widened the opportunity gap that Black, Brown, and low-income kids already faced in our schools. The most recent U.S. Census Bureau Pulse Survey found that only 69% of Washington’s Black families with school-aged kids had regular computer access and only 67% had regular internet access, compared to 95% of white families. Kids are also profoundly affected by the stress and anxiety we’re all feeling. Kids will need more educational and wellness supports as our schools reopen in order to just get back to where they were. We face a choice: failing a whole generation of kids or giving them the tools they need to fulfill their dreams. The right path for our children requires Washington to increase state funding for public schools in addition to any federal aid.
- Basic income supports. With gender, racial and income disparities compounded by COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of Washington households need help to maintain stable housing, keep food on the table, and cover health insurance and other essentials. Multiple bills in Washington’s Legislature now would make a start, including the Working Families Tax Exemption, HB 1297 and SB 5387, which would provide cash to low-income families; HB 1465, which would fund housing stability and support home ownership in BIPOC communities through an increase in taxes on estates of the very wealthy; and SB 5377, which would increase subsidies for health insurance in the individual market.
- Equity at work. Washington has more robust protections for working women than most states, with a relatively high minimum wage, paid sick and safe leave requirements, the Equal Pay and Opportunity Act, and Paid Family and Medical Leave. But we could do so much more to ensure equitable impact. HB 1076 would increase enforcement of our state’s laws so all workers get the rights they’re entitled to. HB 1073 and SB 5097 would make modest priority improvements in the Paid Family and Medical Leave program to increase equity for BIPOC and LGBTQ workers.
Some powerful interests are insisting we can somehow muddle through without raising new revenue. Washington Legislators need to hear from you: We can’t afford not to make these investments in our state’s women and children.
Marilyn Watkins is policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonpartisan policy center focused on building an economy that works for everyone.
Featured image by Susan Fried
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