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Opinion: The US social safety net has been ripped to shreds — and women are paying the price

To be sure, the pandemic presents challenges for all adults, but the new reality has exposed the inequalities that place an outsized burden on women — in Covid-19 times and in normal times.

When you really consider it, women do the work that a welfare state should do. They often become the fundraisers when school budgets don’t meet kids’ needs; the nurses when their elderly and ailing kin can’t afford the high costs of health care; the mentors when employers fail to train or support new hires; the child care providers when center-based care is too expensive or can’t cover the hours their friends and family need.
Why must women take on these responsibilities? Because the government has systematically underinvested in our well-being, and as a result, people in the US — especially those with limited power and resources — are expected to self-care their way through hard times. Left without a safety net, women have engineered their own. The work of building and maintaining that safety net is taking a serious toll on women. And the only real way to reduce that burden is for state and federal policymakers to build a robust welfare state that does the work women currently do.
The disproportionate burden placed on women is perhaps most clear at home. Even when women are working full time, and even when they earn more than their husbands, they still do an outsized share of housework and child care, as well as an outsized share of mental labor — making sure bills are paid, birthdays are remembered, appointments are scheduled, school projects aren’t forgotten on the kitchen table and nothing falls through the cracks.
The work it takes to engineer these homemade safety nets is rarely recognized and rarely (or barely) paid. Yet, unpaid labor isn’t free. When women do the work of the welfare state, it comes with a cost for women’s well-being, women’s relationships, and women’s careers.
Those costs are especially steep right now. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the limited US safety net has been totally ripped to shreds. Many schools, child care centers and nursing homes have closed, forcing families to provide full-time care for children and elderly kin. Countless businesses are shuttered or struggling, leaving workers without jobs and often without adequate support to make ends meet. Hospitals are struggling with capacity, leaving the healthy (and sometimes the also-sick) to care for the ailing at home.
Faced with that broken safety net, women are holding the threads. Certainly, many men have taken on additional care work during the pandemic. But, according to recent research, it’s women who have increased their care work even more. One survey conducted this spring of employed parents found that although working mothers and fathers have both increased the time they spend on child care, working mothers are still spending 15 more hours a week than working fathers on child-care-related tasks.
In two new working papers, my co-authors — Indiana University’s Amelia Knopf, Emily Meanwell, and Elizabeth Anderson — and I find that the work of holding together a broken safety net has real costs for women, taking a toll not only on their careers but also on their relationships and their well-being. Building on our pre-pandemic research with mothers of young children, we surveyed and interviewed these women about their experiences with Covid-19 and found that disruptions in mothers’ access to child care and in-person schooling have led to increased stress, increased anxiety, and increased frustrations with their children and their partners. Mothers working from home without child care, for example, describe feeling like failures as workers and as mothers. Many are turning to food and alcohol as ways of coping with those feelings, and some have dropped out of the workforce because the demands of their unpaid labor have made it impossible to get their paid work done.

The problem with asking for help

Now, it’s easy to assume that women should ask the men in their lives to step up. But, as the brilliant comic author Emma makes clear, having to ask for help means women are still responsible for knowing what’s on the to-do list, monitoring whether that task gets done, nagging if it isn’t or redoing it if it’s not done well.
Telling women to ask for help is also risky. Women who complain about a lack of support from husbands or partners risk being gaslit — one ICU nurse told me: “My husband thinks I’m crazy,” because she tried to get him to wear a mask and take the pandemic more seriously. Women who ask for more help at home also risk conflicts with their partners and even domestic abuse. Meanwhile, women who complain about a lack of support from their employers risk being passed over for promotions or even let go from their jobs.

Ultimately, then, we need men to step up. But we can’t wait for that to happen and we can’t expect it to be enough on its own.

The welfare state we need

To reduce the cost of women’s unpaid labor, we need state and federal policymakers to engineer a robust welfare state — one that would reduce the need for unpaid labor and give women the support they deserve.

Executive mom: I was already juggling a lot, then Covid-19 hit
What would that welfare state look like? Sociologist Caitlyn Collins recently laid out an evidence-based case for four federal policies that all US families need, including: paid family leave (with incentives for fathers to take leave); affordable, high-quality child care (with sufficient federal funding to provide fair pay for the women, especially women of color, who disproportionately provide that care); fair work schedules (with paid sick leave, paid vacation time, and sufficient hours with adequate flexibility); and living wages.

Building on those recommendations, I would add two policies to further reduce reliance on women’s unpaid work.

First, high-quality universal health care would provide better support for the ailing and elderly, reducing the demand on women to provide unpaid care for their kin. Universal health care would also have the benefit of making it easier for many women to leave difficult relationships by decoupling their access to health care from their husbands’ jobs.
Second, substantially increased and equitably distributed federal public school funding would reduce the need for unpaid labor and private donations in getting students the quality education they deserve. School funding would also increase salaries for teachers, who are disproportionately women, and who have been asked in the wake of the pandemic to put their lives on the line.
Of course, building a welfare state will take time — and considerable political will. In the short-term, then, we need to at least repair the safety net that Covid-19 has torn. That means prioritizing the safe and sufficiently funded reopening of public schools and child care centers. It also means creating the conditions for those systems to reopen safely, by mandating mask-wearing, closing bars, gyms, restaurants, and other non-essential businesses and services, and paying to keep those workers home. And it means providing support for the people currently struggling to make ends meet — passing additional pandemic relief, making welfare programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and food stamps less restrictive and more generous, and extending expanded unemployment benefits.
Unfortunately, the systems that led to US reliance on women’s unpaid and underpaid labor capitalism, patriarchy, and White supremacy — will work against any efforts to repair the broken safety net or build a robust welfare state. Those systems stand to lose too much if women — especially women of color — get the support they deserve. And yet, the costs of not acting — the costs for women’s well-being, relationships and careers — are far too high to ignore.

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