To the list of groups disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus pandemic — health care workers, nursing home residents, the poor, people of color — we must now add another: women.
Although COVID-19 is not necessarily more contagious or deadly for women than for men, it is women who have borne the greater economic burden. They tend to be employed in the sectors hollowed out by the pandemic: education, hospitality, retail. And they are chiefly responsible for caregiving, whether of children now home from school or elderly relatives needing support in the pandemic. In September, more than 860,000 women dropped out of the US labor force, four times the number of men. Is it any surprise the retreat coincided with the start of a new school year?
COVID-19 is forcing women out of the workforce. Transparency and openness is the only way forward
One in four women is considering leaving the workforce due to the pandemic, and for the 40 percent who are the sole or primary breadwinner in their families (70 percent for Black women), it is not a casual choice. Taking a break from the labor market aggravates the wage gap even for career professional women; many lower-income workers lose their jobs altogether, launching a downward spiral of debt, hunger, and eviction.
Affordable, accessible, high-quality child care could spell the difference for millions of women between economic stability and this cascade of woes. Unfortunately, it’s harder to find than bipartisan comity in Washington. “We have a systemic problem of devaluing the role of women in the economy,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts in an interview, “and the plight of the child-care industry is a symptom of that problem.”
Day care, already in short supply, becomes scarcer during the pandemic
The US Department of Health and Human Services defines “affordable” child care as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. In Massachusetts, according to the Economic Policy Institute, day care for a 4-year-old costs on average $15,095 a year, which is 16 percent of median income even in this high-wage state. And it’s certainly not the (overwhelmingly female) workers who are getting rich on this expensive service; the median wage for a child-care worker in Massachusetts is $27,680. Despite the many political paeans to the sanctity of the family, society still sees child care as a private responsibility, not a public good.
It was not always thus. During World War II, when Rosie and her sister riveters were recruited into the labor force, the US government developed heavily-subsidized “emergency nurseries” targeted to communities engaged in defense production. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many working mothers, remained ambivalent about outsourcing the care of children, and when the war