Analysis & Comment

Opinion | Working Women of Color Were Making Progress. Then the Coronavirus Hit.

For years, the story of working women in the United States has been one of slow but steady progress. Against this backdrop, the latest monthly employment figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics delivered an acute shock.

A net total of 144,00 jobs were lost in December, the clear effect of the continuing economic downturn. But while male employment increased slightly, 156,000 women lost their jobs, mainly in pandemic-hit sectors such as hospitality and education. And since the employment of white women actually increased, on net these losses fell on women of color.

This is the scourge of the pandemic: It is landing multiple blows on those least able to bear them, widening inequalities stemming from gender, class and race.

In recent decades, women in the work force have been on the ascent. In the late 1980s, women’s pay rose, on average, from about 62 cents for every dollar made by men to 81 cents. Their participation in the work force rose to just over 50 percent by the start of 2020, from 44 percent in 1972. Fifty-nine percent of Black women work, up from about 49 percent at the start of the 1970s. Similarly, 58 percent of Hispanic women work, up from 41 percent in 1972.

But a sense of precarity always threatened these gains.

To understand why, Americans must reckon with the heavily gendered nature of the work force. Even in more stable times, jobs typically held by women were among the lowest-status and worst-paid work. Women, for example, account for about three-quarters of workers in education and a majority in food services. The December numbers for these sectors were stunning: Educational services employment was down by 62,500, while food services lost a whopping 372,000 jobs.

These losses are unlikely to abate. Meanwhile, nearly three-quarters of those working at or below minimum wage in 2019 worked in services, mainly in food preparation and food service, which have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.

Many of those who lost their jobs last month are trapped in a downward spiral. Research shows that workers of color are far more likely to be paid poverty-level wages than white workers, and they are more likely to have debts than to have savings. They may be at risk of eviction.

While this slow-moving crisis is not unique to the United States, the absence of universal health care and a sound safety net has made its American manifestation particularly grotesque. Those earning low or middle incomes in precarious jobs have experienced scant improvement in their living standards since the financial crisis of the early 2000s.

For working-class women of color, enduring economic security is rarely available. In the years to come, those with advanced education will thrive as software engineers or finance professionals in increasingly knowledge-based economies. This largely white, largely male minority will cluster in major urban centers, enjoying what economists call “superstar” earnings: the disproportionately higher rewards that come to those with a modest advantage in abilities.

If access to higher education presages stability, the prospects for women are dire. Although women in the United States now account for just over half of all bachelor’s degrees in all ethnic groups, Black women made up just 6 percent of graduates.

In the United States and other rich economies, social scientists describe this phenomenon as an example of the “Matthew effect,” named for Matthew 25:29 in the Bible: “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away.”

The economy, then, has delivered some into a virtuous circle of prosperity and others into a vicious cycle of decline.

In the months ahead, mass inoculation against the coronavirus may well spark an economic revival and usher a gradual return to social normalcy. But for nearly a year, the virus has widened the chasm between rich and poor, men and women, and white people and people of color. Those working in essential sectors, like hospitals and transportation, have been sentimentalized but treated as replaceable widgets by an economy that takes them from granted.

It is unwise, of course, to read too much into data from a single month. Still: The slow but steady improvement for working women appears to have ground to a halt — and even more so for Black and Latina women.

How thin can the fabric of a society be stretched before it tears? To build “back,” even if “better” than before, is no ambition at all. If even longstanding progress such as the advance of women at work has gone into reverse, it is time to think about building in a different way in the future.

Diane Coyle (@DianeCoyle1859) is a professor of public policy at the University of Cambridge and the author of “Markets, State and People: Economics for Public Policy.”

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