The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, proved to be a lifeline for many women and their families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits introduced by the CARES Act, including the $600 weekly federal unemployment benefit, lifted more than 18 million individuals out of poverty in April, a majority of whom were women. Women outnumber men among state unemployment insurance claimants both nationally and in the large majority of the states. By September, after the weekly federal benefit ended, the poverty-reducing impact of the CARES Act had fallen to just 2 million. This underscores the risk to women and families of falling back into poverty after CARES Act benefits expire December 26 as the pandemic and economic crisis continue with no end in sight.

The CARES Act was successful in temporarily alleviating poverty partly because it extended unemployment benefits for the first time to independent contractors and gig workers. Women are slightly under half of all gig workers. For women, gig work is particularly common in jobs such as personal care services and cleaning and domestic work—jobs that have been particularly hard hit by the “she-cession.”

It is also supported the rapidly rising number of long-term unemployed women and men by providing benefits once state-level unemployment insurance is no longer available (in most states, unemployment benefits are available for 26 weeks). These benefits are critical to supporting BIPOC women and families through the economic crisis as they have been disproportionately impacted by short- and long-term unemployment.

Long-term unemployment shot up sharply in October, from fewer than a fifth to almost a third of the unemployed. Women are 47 percent of the long-term unemployed[1]. In September alone, 865,000 women were forced out of the labor force, and are therefore somewhat less likely to be among the long-term unemployed than men. Latinas and Black women are particularly likely to have been unemployed long-term. Almost one in four of long-term unemployed women are Latinas, and almost one in five are Black women.

The extended benefits provided by the CARES Act are set to expire on December 26. This will have a devastating impact on the millions of families that have been relying on these benefits to meet basic economic needs such as housing and food. According to one estimate, 12 million workers stand to lose their benefits.

Job losses have been particularly severe in low wage jobs, where workers were already struggling before the pandemic. While unemployment benefits often are too low to prevent poverty, in October, unemployed women in families who lost employment income in the COVID-19 pandemic and who had not received any unemployment benefits since the end of March were almost 40 percent more likely to report that their children had gone hungry in the last month, and almost 80 percent more likely to report that foreclose or eviction is extremely likely in the next two months.[2] It is unconscionable to let families suffer from homelessness and hunger, especially during a public health crisis. Congress must act rapidly to reinstate supports for families.

[1] IWPR analysis of Current Population Survey data from Sarah Flood, Miriam King, Renae Rodgers, Steven Ruggles and J. Robert Warren. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 8.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis, MN: IPUMS, 2020.

[2] IWPR analysis of Census Household Pulse surveys, Weeks 16 and 17 (collected September 30-October 26, 2020).