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  • Sarah Chamberlain

Enough is enough. Unemployed women need help from Congress, Biden

It’s difficult to disagree with Jasmine Tucker, the director of research for the National Women’s Law Center, who told Fortune magazine last week that “If white men’s unemployment rates were as high as Black and Latino women’s, we would have done something about it already.”

It’s also difficult to disagree with sociologist and Indiana University professor Jessica Calarco, who said in November 2020 that “other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”

First, some context. The U.S. economy gained a net 49,000 jobs in January.

On the surface, that’s OK news. But beneath the surface, this pandemic continues to be horrific for working women. More than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since last February and nearly 80% of the U.S. adults who stopped working or looking for work last month are women.

To be fair, nearly 1.8 million men have left the labor force since last February, but their employment base is well higher.

The overall unemployment rate fell to 6.3% in January, but it rose to 8.5% for Black women age 20 and older. I’ve written about this phenomenon a few times in Forbes magazine HERE and HERE, but the government revised its earlier estimates of December job losses and said women lost 196,000 jobs and the net job losses were 227,000, up from 156,000 and 227,000, respectively.

There’s pain across the board, but women are bearing the brunt of the damage.

The unemployment rate for Hispanic women in January stood at 8.6%, exactly double where it was a year ago and unemployment for Asian women stood at 6.6%, more than double the 3.1% level in January 2020. And the labor force participation rate – which tracks the share of the population either working or looking for jobs – is down 2.1 percentage points from last year for women 16 and older, compared with a 1.8-percentage-point drop for men.

This ongoing employment crisis has disproportionately hurt the women of color who disproportionately work in restaurants, retail, education, health care, and other “essential” businesses. They are often paid low wages, are in jobs where they often can’t work remotely, and are normally responsible for overseeing remote learning and other childcare duties.

Congress needs to end the rhetoric around President Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and focus on governing. Despite the reasonableness of the counter-proposal by 10 Republican Senators – including three of our members -- it appears that President Biden has the votes to bypass Republican naysayers and pass his bill. Republicans need to make the best of a tough situation and focus on some compromises that will make the bill more palatable to our side of the aisle and not leave us as the “bad guys” in the eyes of Americans who are hurting.

We need effective, permanent policies that support women’s work and caregiving in the long term, including creating a robust care infrastructure; ensuring fair and equal wages and quality benefits; and creating strong workplace protections. We need forward-looking solutions that overcome the status quo and stop damaging women’s progress and U.S. economic growth.

The truth is that the pandemic has only exacerbated a larger problem. In 2018, 21.4 million women lived in poverty and nearly 11 million children – 14.4% of all children under age 18 – lived in poverty in 2019. A big reason for this is the continuing undervaluation of women’s work in terms of type of work and the persistent gender wage gap.

I read an interesting report from Diana Boesch and Shilpa Phadke at the Women’s Initiative at the Center for American Progress. While their organization is admittedly a left-leaning think tank, their recommendations do fall under the category of our advocacy of Republicans looking for opportunities to cross the aisle and find solutions to kitchen-table issues:

  • Extend and expand unemployment benefits beyond the current March 14, 2021, expiration to last through the end of the pandemic, including weekly supplements to woefully insufficient state benefit amounts.

  • Protect and compensate essential workers.

  • Reinstate and expand emergency paid leave to guarantee all workers have access through the end of the pandemic.

  • Increase relief funding for the child-care industry to $50 billion.

  • Provide Americans with meaningful stimulus checks, especially dependent adults and others who were excluded from the recent $600 checks.

  • Provide direct funding aid to state and local governments.

  • Increase spending and support for vaccine distribution.

  • Provide strong protections against evictions and foreclosures, as well as relief for rent.

At the Republican Main Street Partnership, we’re focusing on that message that rhetoric is easy but governing is difficult. As the COVID-19 relief bill (and other legislation) goes through Congress in the weeks to come, we need to be part of the solution, not a millstone that slows down or derails the process.

We should be advocating for a more targeted approach to stimulus checks and create a lower threshold for disbursement while not forgetting that people making good money in 2019 may now be on unemployment or are underemployed.

We need to think about the commercial and residential landlords, who are having to pay the banks, who also need some consideration. We need to make sure that expanded benefits are not a disincentive to looking for a job – which likely includes more job training and retraining programs – and focused efforts to reopen businesses. And we need to reopen schools safely to eliminate the barriers for women to full-time work.

I’d love your thoughts on these recommendations and what Republican lawmakers need to do to make sure they’re not left behind as the freight train pulls out of the station. You can also go here to support our efforts to win back Republican seats in Congress in this next election cycle.

Photo credit: Brookings Institution


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