Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc on Americans’ health, the American economy is suffering, too – and our elected officials are doing virtually nothing to lessen the pain. But the damage isn’t being distributed equally: Parents, and particularly mothers, are shouldering most of the burden. And it’s going to do long-term damage to women’s earnings, careers, and basic safety and security.
This week, economist Michael Madowitz broke down new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. It shows that married people, and married women in particular, have been hit with a huge proportion of job losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, and that married women simply haven’t recovered. “The gender gap is alive and well.” Markowitz tweeted.
Indeed, while the US has gained more than 4.5 million new jobs since June, all of the gains have gone to single people (and more have gone to single men than to single women). Married people, and especially married women, were pushed out of the workforce en masse, and they have not returned.
The same statistics on parental status and employment are not yet out. But I suspect that these job losses have much more to do with the question of whether a person has a child and an employed partner than anything else. “This REALLY looks like a back to school story, esp for women,” Markowitz tweeted. “Job losses in September wiped out all the July and August job gains for married people, while non-married people, particularly men, have opened a huge gap.”
Why is this happening?
Married women often have children, and mothers do most of the childcare and housework and, now, homeschooling. They also have a socially sanctioned and available escape hatch from the demands of work outside the home: an employed spouse. Single women, including single mothers, do not – they generally have to stay employed to keep the lights on.
A great many married mothers, overwhelmed and pushed past the brink, can do what singles cannot (and what is less socially acceptable for fathers), and conclude that it’s best for their family if they leave the workforce and focus on the home front.
Others likely aren’t making the choice themselves. When women shoulder the bulk of childcare and housework and suddenly schools and childcare facilities are closed, mothers became full-time childcare workers in addition to trying to work for pay (many fathers take on more childcare, too, but still do far less than mothers).
Predictably, mothers’ work for pay may suffer, and advocates worry that this may lead to employers targeting women when a company needs to downsize. In the midst of a pandemic that has created such stark gender gaps and put such strains on parents’ time, companies that are rehiring may favor single people who are less likely to have children at home – and more time to dedicate to work.
This has huge implications for women and their families. When women drop out of the workforce – or are pushed out, as is often the case – they take an earnings hit from which they typically never recover.
They wind up with less in retirement. Their families end up poorer. They become immediately vulnerable, sometimes dependent on a male partner for money, housing, food, and stability. They are less able to leave a relationship for any reason, including if it becomes violent.
If the employed partner leaves the marriage, becomes incapacitated, or dies, the long-time unemployed partner may suddenly find themselves needing to work but with ability to get a job that paid as well as their last one. This is one reason why women, on average, wind up so much worse off after divorce than men: After divorce, men’s earnings increase, while divorced women are three times as likely as them to live in poverty, according to research by Stephen Jenkins, a professor at the London School of Economics.
That gap is largely explained by the fact that women are much more likely than men to quit working if they get married and have children.
The norm of fathers working while their wives stay home is also bad for all women in the workforce. For one thing, it solidifies the sexist idea that women are less reliable employees, and that investing in mentoring and promoting women may be for naught. Men whose wives don’t work simply tend to be more sexist bosses who are more likely to have negative perceptions of women in the workplace and deny women promotions, according to a study from three business school researchers.
Other research found that the sons of stay-at-home moms grow up to be more sexist husbands who do less to care for family members than sons of working mothers. And the daughters of stay-at-home mothers are less likely to be employed themselves; when they are employed, they make less money than daughters of working moms.
In other words, women dropping out of the workforce is bad for women, bad for families, and bad for society generally. But right now, mothers are stuck choosing between all bad options, because our dangerous president and manifestly useless Congress have given parents no other choice than to figure it out for themselves.
When there simply are not enough hours in the day to do it all, what are families supposed to do?
It doesn’t have to be this way. We are a wealthy nation; resources could be funneled into renovating schools and childcare facilities so they are well-ventilated and physically safe for students and teachers. Our government could bail out businesses, including those that employ a large number of women, preventing mass layoffs.
The economic burdens of this pandemic don’t need to fall so heavily on citizens; figuring out how to muddle through could be a national endeavor, not an individual encumbrance.
Instead, the President and Republicans in Congress continue to claim to be “pro-family” while letting families suffer needlessly, and putting mothers in particular at risk for a lifetime of financial insecurity – and, potentially, total financial devastation.