Some have labeled the pandemic-driven economic slump a “she-cession,” noting how heavily it has weighed on women. Yet this is so general as to be misleading: The real victims have been primarily Latina and Black. To help them recover, Congress and the Biden administration must recognize and address the issues – particularly in the family – that made them vulnerable in the first place.
Judging from unemployment rates, women as a whole have bounced back significantly from the blow the pandemic delivered. After rising to 16.2% in April – more than 2.5 percentage points higher than that of men – the seasonally adjusted rate for women stood at 6.4% in November, compared with 6.9% for men. But unemployment among Latinas and Black women remained much higher, at 8.2% and 9.0%, respectively.
Why the disparity? One explanation is occupational segregation: Latinas and Black women are more likely to have jobs that are affected by the pandemic, or that put them in harm’s way. Latina workers, for example, are disproportionately employed in the hard-hit retail, leisure and hospitality sectors. They’re also less likely to be able to work remotely, meaning they must often face the difficult choice between losing income and risking their health. As a result, they contract covid-19 at much higher rates than their White counterparts, which aside from being horrible in itself makes maintaining employment all the more difficult.
Family arrangements matter, too. Minority women tend to bear the brunt of responsibilities in the home, which affects their ability to stay in the workforce. According to research soon to be published in the Hispanic Economic Outlook, Latinas are increasingly citing family reasons for being out of the labor force during the pandemic (at rates much higher than White women). They’re also more likely to have more kids at home and to be single mothers, all of which complicates holding down a job.
The lack of access to reliable childcare compounds these problems. When mothers have no safe place to drop off the kids, and nobody else to step in, they can’t go to work. And the longer closures of schools and childcare centers last, the more their job skills atrophy — a phenomenon that could drive many Latinas and Black women out of the labor force permanently, adding to the negative economic impact of the pandemic.
What to do? First, policy makers should act as quickly as possible to establish the testing and safety measures needed to reopen schools and childcare centers. They should prioritize vaccination of teachers, support staff and childcare workers, particularly in places with high proportions of lower-income minority students. And they should invest in outreach to encourage vaccine acceptance in predominantly Latino and Black communities, which have strong historical reasons to mistrust the medical establishment. Longer term, they should ensure that all minority women have access to the services – including affordable child care – they need to participate more fully in the labor market.
The Biden administration seems ready to take a more effective approach to containing covid-19, and has recognized the pandemic’s disparate impact on people of color. One must hope that it will put the two together into policies that will translate into economic gains for minority women, now and in the future.
– – –
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
– – –
Blanco is a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University. She specializes in economic development, international economics and the financial well-being of minorities in the U.S.