Perhaps the greatest economic lesson the U.S. will glean from the coronavirus is not only that slow-acting fiscal policy leaves the vulnerable more vulnerable. It’s also that any fiscal policy, slow-acting or not, without the gender lens leaves women to bear the brunt of a financial crisis.
We need to view the economy that’s been driven by coronavirus and our data through the lens of gender to get a better grasp on how this impromptu disaster affects the 51% of the population that is female.
The coronavirus economy and the jobs women work
American women are more likely to be low-wage and part-time workers than men. In fact, 62% of minimum-wage and lower-wage workers are female. These employees face a greater risk of income loss when their workplaces (such as restaurants, convenience stores, hotels, and airports) shut down to contain the spread of the virus.
As the financial health of consumer-facing industries declines, it’s not only current employees who suffer. Future service industry employees will lose income-generating opportunities because of virus-induced hiring freezes. United Airlines Holding, for example, recently froze hiring until July. Employers across industries will likely fire women first when it comes to virus-induced job cuts because we live in a country where the mainstream narrative says women’s incomes are secondary to men’s. This narrative, however, does not hold up against the data.
The role of women as heads of households in our society
Women’s incomes do not bankroll some imaginary “purses and shoes” fund. When a woman loses her paycheck, it doesn’t mean she’ll spend less on luxury items. It means she’ll spend less on housing, food, healthcare, childcare, and other nondiscretionary expenses. Over 70% of U.S. households with children rely on women’s income for their economic well-being. Furthermore, 40% of U.S. households depend on a breadwinner mom to put food on the table.
Without a steady, reliable income, women must make severe cuts to their household budgets—cuts that affect them and their dependents. And that’s at the microeconomic level. At the macro level, markets have to deal with the massive drop of demand when female-headed households reduce spending.
But we mustn’t forget: Women didn’t need the coronavirus to experience reduced financial empowerment. Women have been facing the long-term effects of the gender pay gap for decades now. Women, in aggregate, earn 82 cents for every dollar men earn. Eighteen cents may not seem like a significant sum of money; however, it adds up. Over the course of a year, the average working woman loses $10,122 as a result of the gender pay gap.
Women had less income before the virus ever began taunting the economy. It’s one reason why women and children make up 70% of our nation’s poor. It’s also why women are twice as likely to live in poverty during retirement than men.
Women make up a disproportionate number of caregivers
It’s time we turn our attention from the work front to the home front, where the expectations of women skyrocket—especially now during this time of panic. On average, U.S. women perform 241 minutes of unpaid labor (the “second shift” of cooking, cleaning, caregiving) every day. Comparatively, men spend 145 minutes per day on domestic work. This inequitable division of labor poses a threat to women as schools shut down to prevent the virus’s spread. The most recent data shows that 33 states have closed public schools, and approximately 64% of all public school students are at home right now.
Many women must compromise their financial security by taking off work—if they aren’t already forced to take off work—to look after their school-aged children. Again, the mainstream narrative supports this expectation because it assumes a.) that women’s work comes second to men’s, and b.) that women have men who contribute to household finances to begin with. In 2018, 15 million children lived with solo moms, and 3 million children lived with solo dads. Of all female-headed households, 34% live in poverty—more than double the rate of male-headed households and nearly six times the rate of married-couple households who live in poverty. And let’s remember that 59% of public school students, most of whom are not at school right now, qualify for free and reduced lunch.
Some analysts expect upwards of 30 million schoolchildren will go without meals at a time when their immune systems need all the strength they can get. Coronavirus school closures, as much as I support them, reveal two things about our society. One, the depth of gender inequity on the home front, and two, our labor force’s overwhelming lack of paid sick and family leave.
The status of paid sick and family leave coverage
The U.S. is one of two countries in the OECD (the other is South Korea) that does not guarantee paid sick leave, according to Pew Research. When the coronavirus hit, approximately 67% of our private sector employees and only 30% of our low-wage workers—those who earn $10.80 or less per hour—had access to paid sick leave. The same report found that less than 50% of part-time workers had access to sick leave.
Since the start of the outbreak, businesses such as Facebook, Salesforce, and Microsoft have stepped up and expanded sick leave benefits. Congress, too, is rushing to pass a bill that would help workers access paid sick leave. But such measures don’t go far enough. The emergency legislation, for example, guarantees sick leave to a mere 20% of workers and excludes companies with 500 or more employees. This point-in-time policy still leaves many vulnerable workers and their families behind.
Beyond paid sick leave, we also are grappling with the shortage of paid caregiver policies. Currently, only 16% of private-industry employees have access to paid caregiver leave. As a consequence, taking off work to look after sick family members adds an extra financial burden for caregivers, who, more often than not, are women.
The economy needs women, and women need gender equity
We can summarize the ensuing economic impact of the coronavirus in one word: illiquidity. Illiquidity in the market matters because it influences market volatility. The more illiquid a market, the more volatility it experiences. And instability in the market amplifies financial crises. On Monday, the CBOE Volatility Index passed its 2008 peak to reach a record high. We need to act now.
Since women carry a disproportionate share of the coronavirus’s financial burden, they have less spending power and thus must forgo or delay purchases. Demand drops. The Center for American Progress calls this a “one-two punch” to an economy already facing supply shocks.
Two potential solutions
At a time of such volatility, monetary policy can only do so much to pump liquidity into the markets, especially with interest rates as low as they are. Besides, it takes months, sometimes years, to feel the effects of monetary policy.
We need policymakers to separate gender in economic data so that they can create sustainable legislation—quickly. For the millions of wage workers losing shifts, for the millions of mothers looking after their schoolchildren, for the service workers struggling to retain business. Gender-balanced fiscal stimulus will soften the economic blow of the virus. Without it, markets will remain illiquid and consumer confidence low.
Members of Congress would be wise to practice gender budgeting starting today. It’s not complicated. On the contrary, it’s quite intuitive. To put gender budgeting into practice, policymakers would need to analyze the fiscal stimulus in terms of how it impacts men and how they impact women. It’s a simple reframe that flips our current operating system on its head. Instead of assuming that government budgets are gender-neutral, we would start realizing that men and women have unique needs, perspectives, and lived-experiences and thus are impacted by fiscal policy differently.
For instance, a 2016 analysis of Britain’s 2010 to 2015 austerity measures found that women shouldered 85% of the impact of the spending cuts—such as those to welfare benefits—largely because women were more likely to be single parents and rely more on benefits. Well-designed gender budgeting is not only the right thing to do—it’s the smart thing to do. It improves the efficiency of the overall budget process. As the coronavirus continues to wreck economic havoc, we need to use gender budgeting as a tool to create a fiscal stimulus that actually works for everyone.
Members of Congress, now is your moment to bend the arc of history toward inclusion. Do not forget the 16 million breadwinner moms who support 28 million children. Do not forget the 15 million women and 12 million children who live in poverty. Do not forget the 13 million women and 4.3 million children without health insurance, or the fact that women hold 70% of our nation’s lowest-paid jobs. Do not forget the economic value of the second shift, which, if compensated for, would see women earning an extra $40,000 per year. Act now.