Domestic Workers in the Pandemic: A Case Study in Structural Inequality

I was very moved when my new neighbors agreed that they would all continue to pay the people who cleaned their apartments, even though the housekeepers could not work in the pandemic. I had just moved to a new city, and the Covid-19 pandemic hit one week after I arrived. Everyone immediately sheltered in place, and people closed their homes to outsiders for protection from the virus—which meant that housekeepers and other service workers were not allowed into our building. I worried about what would happen to all the domestic workers, and I thought their employers continuing to pay them was the right thing to do. How else would these workers pay their bills? In fact, David Segal of the New York Times writes that housekeepers have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. By April 2020, domestic workers lost most of or all their clients. According to a survey by the National Domestic Workers Alliance,

  • 72 percent had lost all clients by the first week in April.
  • They were not so much laid off but ghosted. Their employers stopped answering their phones.
  • Most are undocumented workers, so they are not eligible for government relief.
  • Few have savings or shares of stock, unlike their clients, who continued to prosper during the pandemic.
  • A few experienced acts of generosity, but not many.

Segal explains that structural inequality for domestic workers is rooted in racism and existed as far back as the 1800s during the Jim Crow era after slavery. He notes that domestic work was one of the few ways that Black women had to earn money. Until well into the 1950s, most Black women lived in the South and were powerless, exploited, mistreated, and overworked. Segal notes that “in 1935, the federal government all but codified the grim conditions of domestic work with the passage of the Social Security Act” of the New Deal. It provided retirement benefits and a national unemployment compensation program for workers but excluded two categories of employment—domestic work and agricultural labor—that were essential to Black women and men.

Surprisingly, white Southerners weren’t the ones who insisted on this exclusion. White Northerners in Roosevelt’s administration argued that these workers would be too difficult to include. Not until the 1970s was domestic work finally added to the Social Security Act, thanks to the organizing efforts of Black women. But by the 1980s, Black women had moved into other occupations and were largely replaced as domestic workers by undocumented women from Central and South America and the Caribbean who did know their rights or were afraid to assert them.

Senator Kamala Harris has sponsored a federal Domestic Bill of Rights, which would guarantee a minimum wage and other benefits, but it has not yet passed in the Senate. Segal reports that a study by the Economic Policy Institute found that

  • 2 million domestic workers—a group that includes housekeepers, childcare workers, and home healthcare aides—earn an average of twelve dollars per hour and are three times as likely to live in poverty as other hourly workers.
  • Few have benefits like sick leave, health insurance, formal contracts, or protections against unfair dismissal.

The pandemic has now magnified the power imbalance between employers and domestic workers. As much as at any time in the past, domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse, poor working conditions, and substandard wages. We can all stand up for these workers by voting for local, state, and federal legislators who will right these wrongs. This is a very old problem.

 

Photo courtesy of Veselina Dzhingarova

New Cracks in the Glass Ceiling on Wall Street and Hollywood

In February 2021, Jane Fraser will become the first woman chief executive officer of a major financial institution in the United States, according to reporting by Emily Flitter and Anupreeta Das. Wall Street has stubbornly remained a bastion of white men despite repeated talk of recruiting and promoting more women for decades. The authors note that “not only will Ms. Fraser, 53, not have any female counterparts among the 10 largest U.S. banks when she becomes Citi’s chief, she will also join a small group of female leaders at major American corporations.” The numbers are bleak:

  • There are only thirty-one women among chief executives of the five hundred companies of the S&P 500 stock index, according to Catalyst, an advocacy group.
  • Women account for 26 percent of all senior US financial service executives in 2019, only a 6 percent increase since 2016.

The representation of white women and people of color in the financial sector below the executive level is also grim. I previously wrote about this low representation and significant gender pay gap in the financial sector in an article entitled “Where Are the Senior Women in the Financial Sector?

The film industry has also taken a significant step to break through a barrier at MGM. A recent study, reported by Brooks Barnes of the New York Times, found that senior management teams at Hollywood studios are 93 percent white and 80 percent male, unchanged in the past five years. These senior management teams decide what movies will and will not get made and what their budgets will be. For this reason, the recent step by MGM to give a young producer, Alana Mayo, exclusive control over what films its Orion Pictures division will make is significant. Mayo will lead a greenlight committee made entirely of women, who will decide what movies Orion will make. Her boss, Michael De Luca, chairman of MGM’s film group, will not have a vote in selecting films. Mayo, who describes herself as a woman, Black, and queer, plans to focus Orion on making films that focus on people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities—groups that have been underrepresented in major studio films.

Mayo states, “I want to create something that will hopefully make people like me feel like they are finally a part of the Hollywood system.” It is well known that how people are portrayed on television and in film influences the attitudes of the general population and can create support and inclusion for underrepresented groups. Think about how quickly acceptance of the idea of marriage equality grew once LGBTQ people began appearing in television shows as parents, spouses, friends, and family members. Let’s hope that the promotion of Mayo is a first step to increasingly diverse leadership in the film industry.

 

Photo by Steven Van on Unsplash

Another Challenge for Working Parents

There has always been resentment from childless coworkers toward colleagues who are parents, especially when women, and some men, take maternity and paternity leave or family leave to care for ill family members. Organizations tend to expect the coworkers left behind to pick up the work of their absent colleagues rather than planning for supplemental workers to pick up the extra load. This adds stress and pressure for the workers who are covering the extra workload.

I have seen this resentment from childless employees expressed over the years in all types of organizations, but new reporting by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Sheera Frenkel for the New York Times focuses on resentment from childless employees in the tech industry. Their reporting reveals interesting policy changes by many tech companies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic for both parents and nonparents along with a torrent of resentment from nonparents.

Wakabayashi and Frenkel report that “when the coronavirus closed schools and child care centers and turned American parenthood into a multitasking nightmare,” many tech companies reached into their deep pockets and rushed to help their employees. They implemented many generous policy changes to try to help their employees work from home and help parents care for their children. These policy changes seem to have exacerbated the resentment of childless employees who complain that the new policies “primarily benefit parents.” The tensions released have been most prominently displayed at Facebook, where childless employees are angrily challenging the company about their perception of unfair treatment, and they are disparaging their coworkers who are parents. Here are some of the changes Facebook has made in response to the pandemic that have unleashed resentment:

  • Facebook offered up to ten weeks of paid time off for employees if they had to care for a child whose school or day-care facility had closed or for an older relative whose nursing home was not open.
  • Facebook announced that it would not be scoring employees on job performance for the first half of 2020 because of all the changes in everyone’s lives.
  • Every Facebook employee will receive a bonus usually reserved for very good performance scores, which especially annoyed the childless employees who felt they worked harder and should see more rewards.
  • Facebook offers thirty days of emergency leave for all employees if they need to care for a sick family member, and all employees receive an unlimited number of sick days and twenty-one vacation days a year.

Facebook also offered these benefits to all its employees:

  • All Facebook employees received a $1,000 stipend to buy equipment for working from home when the pandemic required total remote work.
  • All Facebook employees can take up to three days of leave to cope with physical or mental health issues without a doctor’s note.

Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Twitter have each implemented similar parental/family leave policies.

I don’t know about you, but I find the Facebook policies generous for all their employees. I know that tech companies are well known for hiring young people and demanding long hours of work from them. It seems likely that because they are young, these workers have not worked outside the tech industry and do not realize that most organizations do not offer these types of generous benefits for either parents or childless employees. I tend to agree with Laszlo Bock, Google’s former head of people operations, who was quoted in this article as saying that the complaints of the childless tech workers reflect a “lack of patience, a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement.” I fear that our culture has bred this sense of entitlement and individual focus rather than valuing a sense of community and a sense of responsibility to others.

Something needs to change in our society. What do you think will help?

 

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Update on the UK Gender Pay Gap: Has Transparency Made a Difference?

I have long felt and written about the importance of transparency to close the gender wage gap in the United States. It stands to reason that as long as payroll information is a secret, we cannot hold organizations accountable for paying women and people of color less than they pay white men for the same work. For that reason, I felt hopeful when, in about 2016, the United Kingdom passed a law requiring that all organizations with at least 250 employees had to report their wage data, broken down by sex (but not race). The first report of comparative wage data was published in 2018. I also remember the outrage and scandal when this data revealed massive gender wage gaps in almost every industry and job in the United Kingdom. I subsequently assumed that change was well underway in there with closing the gender wage gap because of this transparency and the outrage it unleashed. When I recently made a presentation on gender issues in the workplace to a group of women in the United Kingdom, I mentioned that their country had taken significant steps to close the wage gap compared to what we have done on a national level in the United States. When I got blank stares back from my UK audience, I realized that my assumptions were apparently wrong, and I decided to find out what has happened after 2018.

Linda Scott, writing for The Guardian, reports that not only has the wage gap not closed for women in the United Kingdom as a result of the publication of the 2018 wage data, but that the current Covid-19 pandemic is making things worse for women in there. She notes that women are “watching their careers evaporate as the pay gap widens.” She suggests that the pandemic could set women’s economic progress back half a century because of the expectation that women will sacrifice their own economic viability to provide care at home. Before the pandemic, women in the United Kingdom were 75 percent of the part-time labor force because childcare is so expensive, and they were hit hard when part-time jobs fell by 70 percent in the first three months of the pandemic. With schools and day care closed, British mothers were 47 percent more likely than fathers to lose their jobs. As in the United States, gender inequality in the home increased during the pandemic as British women did more than twice the work of maintaining the home and family than men did.

Why didn’t the scandal produced by the big reveal of wage data in 2018 result in any change in the British wage gap? Scott explains the following:

  • In 2018, most pundits, HR managers, and government servants blamed the women for having children, choosing to work in the wrong jobs, and not trying hard enough even though all industries paid women less in every job.
  • The United Kingdom’s Equal Pay Act of 1970, passed fifty years before, contained a provision that said there can be no “positive discrimination” of one sex over another. In other words, it would be “positive discrimination” to raise the wages of women to be equal to men’s. The 1970 law did not recognize patterns of inequality between women and men that already existed, nor past discrimination. Therefore, equal pay had to be considered only during the actual hiring process.
  • When an employer underpays a woman in the United Kingdom, her only recourse is to file an expensive and protracted lawsuit that she may not win. The employer’s risk is minimal, so it makes sense for employers to continue paying women less. There are few consequences.

Scott notes that in 2020, two years after the British gender pay gap was exposed, no significant improvements have been made because there simply are no consequences for maintaining discriminatory practices. This is not good news.

 

Photo courtesy of Erich Ferdinand (CC BY 2.0)

Why Black Women Are So Thrilled about Kamala Harris

Let me be clear—I am a white woman who is thrilled that Kamala Harris was chosen to be the vice presidential running mate to Joe Biden. I noticed the giddiness of black women and men on the days following Harris’s appointment. Every black person interviewed on television over subsequent days seemed to be smiling broadly and almost speechless with joy. The same seemed true for my black friends and colleagues. I also noticed that her appointment occurred just days before the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. In fact, the Nineteenth Amendment gave only white women the right to vote, and it took another fifty years for women of color and other marginalized groups to get the vote with the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1970.

Harris focused a lot in her acceptance speech at the Democratic convention on the fact that she is a black and Asian woman. Since then I have heard solidly Democratic white people say they felt left out of all the excitement of her speech and wondered, “What about me? Don’t white people count? If she becomes president some day, will white people count?” But she has a really good reason for her emphasis and joy about her appointment as a black and Asian woman.

Black women finally feel seen and valued, which has been a long time coming. An editorial in the New York Times explains that black women have been erased from the history of the suffrage movement and “the contributions of African-American women like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells” were rendered invisible. Black women were also erased when

  • After working tirelessly for decades along with white women to gain the vote and abolish slavery, white women turned their backs on black women when the time came to press for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and made a deal with white men to leave black women out. White women even told the black suffragettes that they had to march at the back of the parade for the final big rally, which the black women refused to do.
  • The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 concerned itself with many issues of interest to only white women and ignored many concerns of black women.
  • The white suffrage heroines Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony controlled the narrative of the suffrage movement by publishing a six-volume collection called History of Woman Suffrage, which left out the contributions of black women to the movement. Stanton and Anthony described the movement as one that implicitly “defined women as people who were white and middle class.”

Finally, because it took another fifty years for black women to gain the right to vote, they feel that they finally have a voice in our democracy. They feel their issues and talents have been taken for granted and largely ignored by the Democratic party between elections, and the appointment of Kamala Harris feels like a significant recognition.

In other articles on suffrage by Gail Collins of the New York Times and Monica Hesse of the Washington Post, Collins and Hesse discuss many examples of the threat perceived by white men of white women having the vote and their successful attempts to block progress on issues of concern to white women. The effort to block access to voting for black women and men continue to this day. In addition, women have not joined forces to make progress on issues of concern to them, such as pregnancy protections, healthcare, and childcare, to the extent possible. Perhaps the appointment of Kamala Harris as the vice presidential nominee will become the turning point when we work together for change.

 

Photo courtesy of Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Caregiving Is an Issue for Everyone

When my mother was diagnosed with brain tumors and given four months to live, I did what most of us would do if we could. I, along with my sister, temporarily moved 1,200 miles to take care of her for the remaining months of her life. Fortunately, both my sister and I were self-employed at the time. I could do some, but not all, of my work remotely. I still had to cut back to part time and reduce my income, but I was able to do that and had a supportive partner back home.

Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times writes, “Even though women have always done most of the caregiving, both paid and unpaid, it’s never been just a women’s issue.” She notes that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of family caregiving and the fragility of our caregiving systems, along with the economic impact of our lack of national caregiving policies. She notes that Joe Biden, in speaking about his experience as a single father, has emphasized that caregiving is not just a women’s issue. It is a refreshing and striking change to hear a male politician speak from the experience of a single father in support of new national caregiving policies which he plans to implement if he is elected president.

Miller notes that “nearly everybody cares for family at some point”:

  • In two-thirds of married couples with children, both parents work.
  • Nearly half of adults in their forties and fifties are caring for both children and parents.
  • The United States is the only developed Western country that does not support working parents with national policies for paid family leave or subsidized childcare.

In another article, Miller notes that among the reasons caregiving policies have not been a priority in the United States is that Americans have conflicting feelings about whether women should work. She also notes that caregiving is an economic issue for four reasons:

  • Research from the Center for American Progress shows that universal pre-K immediately increases women’s labor force participation.
  • High-quality early childhood care and education shrink racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps and prepare workers for the future.
  • The care sector is the fastest-growing employment sector and one that cannot be replaced by automation. The care sector can become a pathway to the middle class if care work is valued and respected and if care workers receive a living wage, benefits, and the ability to unionize.
  • Unpaid family caregivers could receive tax credits and social security credits to make it possible to choose to care for family members.

Now is the time to truly value families and caregiving. Let’s hope that change comes from this pandemic to right these wrongs.

 

Photo by Dominik Lange on Unsplash

Costs of Motherhood in the Pandemic

In so many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a deep disregard for working mothers. In a previous article I wrote about the unequal distribution of labor in heterosexual couples as women and men try to work full time from home while dealing with homeschooling, housework, and childcare. In another recent article, I wrote about the disproportionate damage to women’s careers during the pandemic. A new article by Joan C. Williams, published in the New York Times, reveals new horror stories about the impact of pandemic-caused public policies that hurt rather help working mothers. In fact, Williams suggests that many “employers are using the pandemic to get rid of mothers.”

Williams is the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. This center has existed for some years to provide legal resources to help workers access workplace accommodations and family leave. She reports that between April and June 2020, caregiver-related calls to the hotline, mostly from mothers, increased 250 percent compared to the same time last year. She notes that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), passed this spring to provide family and sick leave for reasons related to Covid-19, is not working. The act is so complicated and excludes so many workers—such as healthcare workers, emergency responders, and employees of large companies—that it has failed to protect the people who need it the most. Here are some of the stories of people her center has tried unsuccessfully to help:

  • A single mother who is a healthcare worker and, therefore, not covered by the FFCRA was given the option to resign or get fired when she ran out of childcare options for her six-year-old and eight-month-old children.
  • A single mother who was supposed to be covered by the FFCRA requested a part-time schedule to help her deal with homeschooling and other childcare demands. She was covered by the FFCRA only if her employer agreed to accommodate her, which he did not. She was fired.
  • A grocery worker was able to return to work only if she could get the same part-time schedule she had always worked. Her employer reduced her hours to zero, refusing to answer her questions, and she was unable to collect unemployment because she had not officially been laid off.
  • Another single mother with a disabled child was fired when her employer insisted that she no longer work from home and return to the office. Because she could not take the risk of exposing her disabled child to Covid-19 by returning to the office, she was fired when she requested to be able to continue working from home. She was not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act because it is her daughter, not herself, who is disabled.
  • Worst of all are the stories of low-income women who have to return to work but can only do so by leaving small children at home alone.

Williams explains that not even the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program helps many mothers like those described above who are pushed out by employers. Employers deny these women’s unemployment claims “on the grounds that they left their jobs for personal reasons.” Williams notes that the lack of legal protections for working mothers is just one part of a larger problem. She suggests that we need nationwide paid family leave in this country and “neighborhood-based, nationally financed child care to replace the patched-together Rube Goldberg machine that just broke.”

We have the opportunity to fix these broken systems and give help to those who need it. Let’s not lose this momentum.

 

Photo courtesy of Krypto (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

More Barriers Fall for Women in Publishing and the Military

It is important to notice good news for women leaders when it happens. I recently wrote about barriers for women that came down in publishing and politics. These small cracks in the glass ceiling are beginning to accumulate. Now there are new cracks to report as additional barriers fall for women in publishing and the military.

In publishing, Rachel Abrams of the New York Times writes that Hearst Magazines named Samira Nasr as the next editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Abrams notes that Nasr will be the first woman of color to hold the top job at the 153-year-old fashion publication. Abrams also points out that “Ms. Nasr’s appointment . . . comes at a moment of upheaval in the media industry. Journalists, frustrated by some of the coverage of the protests after [George] Floyd’s killing, have been emboldened to question issues of systemic racism and bias in their own institutions.” Staff at a variety of publishing institutions have been protesting discrimination against Black women and other women of color. It seems that the publishing industry is finally listening.

In the military, the first woman has earned the title of Green Beret since the Pentagon opened all combat jobs to women in 2016. The soldier’s name is being withheld because she is now a member of the secretive Special Operations community, and operational security must be maintained. Thomas Gibbons-Neff writes that “the Green Berets were one of the last assignments in the Army without any women.” The crushingly high physical standards of the Green Berets were considered unattainable for women. That barrier has been breached.

Let’s keep an eye out for good news for women, such as the selection of a woman of color as vice president on the Democratic ticket, and share it so that all the bad news currently coming out in our world does not drown out the good.

 

Photo by Staff Sgt. William Howard (PD)

Five Ways Women Could Benefit from the Pandemic

It seems likely that some changes in the way we work resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic will be permanent. In a previous post, I summarized research emerging about the differential impact of the pandemic on women who are parents. Family caregiving, previously expected to be kept private and not mentioned at work, has been on full display as everyone works from home during the pandemic and children crawl into parents’ laps during online meetings. In addition, research reveals an unequal distribution of work within heterosexual couples, with housework, childcare, and homeschooling responsibilities falling predominantly on women; a dramatic reduction in publications for women in academia; and a higher incidence of women reducing their work hours during the pandemic with possible long-term career consequences.

Alison Goldman, writing for The Lily, suggests that organizations can learn from the experience of this pandemic about how to create more supportive and inclusive office cultures. She cites a study by Catalyst showing that 71 percent of working people believe that Covid-19 will make a positive impact on gender equality in the workplace. Specifically, she notes, “It’s possible to incorporate inclusivity focused work-from-home revelations into office culture once things start returning to ‘normal,’ but we need to be intentional about it.”

What are the five changes that Goldman suggests that could make a positive difference in gender equality at work?

  1. Talk more about everyone’s our personal life. Instead of trying to hide the fact that they have children, as they felt pressured to do before the pandemic, working parents now have their family lives in the open as they work from home. Goldman cites Daisy Dowling, founder and chief executive of Workparent, a consulting firm focused on working parents, as saying that “making the personal professional” can build empathy and breed communication about what is most helpful for each individual on a team. In fact, Dowling notes, managers can learn to ask open-ended questions to learn more about the needs of their team members, such as “Are there any ways in which I’d be helpful to you as you think about staying at this organization for the long-term?”
  2. Reconsider the company approach to telecommuting. Many organizations have been surprised by how productive workers are when they work from home. Not all jobs can be done by telecommuting, but a surprising number can. Remote work also allows for more racial diversity in hiring when the company is not physically located where diverse populations live. Physical location no longer needs to matter for hiring. Telecommuting should become a more prevalent way of working, which can greatly benefit both working parents and organizations.
  3. Consider more flexible work options. Flexibility can mean more than just working from home. Work hours and days can also be flexible to accommodate family life. The author goes back to her suggestion of organizations and managers directly asking their employees what would be helpful to them to be most efficient. Many women I know cannot imagine their bosses ever showing this kind of interest and concern about the challenges of balancing work and family life. Unsupportive bosses are the reason many talented women leave companies.
  4. Provide management training for how to support remote workers and working parents. More than ever, managers need to know how to support today’s workforce for maximum productivity. Goldman notes that “managers are spending more time on employee care” and development. Many managers don’t have these skills.
  5. Offer support for workers outside of the office. This includes providing a budget for setting up a home office and childcare.

Parents, particularly working mothers, could benefit a great deal from these changes. Working mothers would not have to damage their careers by cutting back to part-time work, financial support for childcare could make working full-time more possible, and organizations would be able to keep talented workers who might otherwise have to leave. Working fathers would also benefit and could be more available and inclined to share housework, childcare, and homeschooling equitably without damaging their careers. These changes could be a win-win for all of us.

 

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How Gender Inequality and the Pandemic Affect Retirement for Women

A new report from the Brookings Institution notes that the status of women in retirement has not gotten much attention. The authors of this report, Grace Enda and William G. Gale, point out that significant differences exist in economic status for women in retirement compared to the status of men. They identify a range of factors that contribute to this gender inequity, including that

  • Women earn 81 percent of median men’s earnings for similar full-time work. This number obscures the larger pay gaps for women of color.
  • Lower lifetime earnings lead to lower Social Security benefits for women. Women receive benefits that are, on average, 80 percent of those men receive.
  • Women with one child earn 28 percent less on average over their careers than a woman with no children. Each additional child reduces a woman’s earnings by 3 percent.
  • The motherhood penalty—when career interruptions occur after the birth of a child—result in an average of reduced Social Security benefits of 16 percent. Each additional child increases the gap by 2 percent.
  • Caregiving for elderly parents and relatives usually falls on women more than men. People who leave the labor force early to care for an elderly relative lose an average of $142,000 in wages.
  • Progressive income taxation of family income provides a disincentive to married women to stay in the paid labor force, with long-term consequences for their retirement benefits.
  • Lower lifetime earnings can reduce the amount of wealth women can accumulate from employer-sponsored retirement plans.
  • Women tend to live longer than men, often draw down their savings over a longer period, and thus are more likely to run out of retirement savings.
  • Poverty rates for women rise with age. In every marital status group, women with children had higher poverty rates than women without children, a pattern that does not hold for men.

Enda and Gale offer suggestions for policy changes that can address the retirement gap for women. They point out that labor market practices, retirement systems, and social policy are not set up to accommodate women’s life experiences. They suggest the following policy changes that can close the gaps for women in retirement:

  • A robust federal paid family leave policy and subsidized high-quality childcare will make it more tenable for women to stay in the paid work force, save for retirement, and earn Social Security credits.
  • Under a Social Security Caregiver Credit, the government would assign a value to caregiving work that would be used in calculations of Social Security benefits. The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Sweden provide caregiver credits for public pensions, and we could do this too.
  • Reform the tax code to either provide a second-earner credit or tax individuals rather than families to improve incentives for married women to work.
  • Strengthen the social safety net by boosting Supplemental Security benefits to close the gap between Social Security income and the poverty threshold.
  • Increase support from Medicare and Medicaid for end-of-life care. These costs for a spouse often drain the savings of widows and leave them destitute.
  • Reform divorce laws.

In addition to the structural problems described in the Brookings report resulting in gaps in retirement wealth and higher levels of poverty for older women, we now have the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbating the situation. As Mark Miller, writing for the New York Times, notes, “One of the most important factors affecting your retirement security is how long you work.” But the pandemic is making it harder for people to work longer, especially older people:

  • The combined rate of unemployment and underemployment for workers over sixty-five in May 2020 was 26 percent and are much higher for older workers who are less educated, Black, and Latino.
  • The New School for Social Research forecasts that the poverty rate in retirement among workers who are now fifty to sixty will rise to 54 percent because of the pandemic economic shock. Employers do not want to hire older workers in the pandemic.

In other words, the policy changes described above are more important going forward than they have ever been—especially for women. Let’s keep the pressure on our lawmakers to legislate these policy changes.

 

Photo by Mariia Chalaya on Unsplash