This interview is part of a week-long series for IWPR’s signature Status of Women in the States initiative. The work featured in this series highlights the various ways the pandemic and related economic crisis are impacting women and their families at the state level. This project builds on IWPR’s recent economic recovery report that details the extent to which women, and particularly women of color, have shouldered the greatest burden of the economic crisis, and proposes a slate of bold policies to ensure a gender-equitable recovery. The pieces included in this series provide a snapshot of what women are experiencing in states across the nation, and highlight the urgent need for federal funding for states and localities. 

Below is our interview with Rachel Flum, Executive Director of the Economic Progress Institute – a nonpartisan research and policy organization dedicated to improving the economic well-being of low- and modest-income Rhode Islanders.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the impact the economic recession, record jobless claims, and the shuttering of businesses, schools, and daycare centers has had on women all over the United States. As data has shown, however, the impact on women and women’s experiences vary by state. Rachel, can you share a bit about what you are seeing and hearing from women in Rhode Island?

We hear of women who have lost their jobs because they had to stay home to help their children navigate distance learning, or because their jobs were downsized or their business or place of work closed. Even if they are still working, many are reducing their hours so they can be home to care for children or help with virtual learning.  Too many women and their families were already struggling to make ends meet and lived one paycheck away from not being able to pay their bills. Losing work or hours is throwing too many women into real economic distress and women are facing eviction and are unable to pay all their bills.

Also, there are many women, in Rhode Island and around the country, who are undocumented and therefore not able to receive the one-time stimulus payment or unemployment benefits, even though they pay taxes. While the philanthropic community has set up a fund to help provide some relief, the support is not sufficient.

At the Economic Progress Institute, we do a lot of work on caregiving programs, and we know that the women working in these in these women-dominated sectors, are doing the “essential jobs” of caring for seniors and for our youngest so their parents can go to work. These aren’t jobs where women can work from home and these women are putting their health and their families’ health on the line to continue to go to work. Many are stressed out, exhausted, and also trying to juggle caring for their own families while continuing to work and carrying additional stress and worry.

Even if women have the option to work from home, those with young children are often asked to do so while caring for their young children. We hear of women who aren’t comfortable sending their children to child care so they are reducing their hours or quitting their jobs. Or of women whose children are in elementary school and are either learning remotely or on a hybrid schedule. These children are not able to do schoolwork without a parent/adult nearby and some mothers are trying to work early in the morning and late at night to accommodate children’s schooling in between. This is exhausting and hard to sustain.

We also are seeing that increased financial strain and other stressors are leading to increased incidence of domestic violence. Sadly, domestic violence agencies are answering more calls of women in distress as families have been asked to “stay at home” and it has become harder for victims to leave their abusers.

Were there any circumstances pre-COVID that made women in your state vulnerable to the pandemic and economic crisis?

Yes, Rhode Island already had the second highest poverty rate in New England and a lower minimum wage than our neighbors ($11.50 as of October 2020, compared to Massachusetts which is $12.75 and set to go to $13.25 in January, and $12.00 in Connecticut). This has contributed to many of our caregivers and “essential workers” having wages that are not family sustaining. One-in-four essential workers in Rhode Island are earning poverty wages. We know that women of color are more likely to be struggling with poverty and lower wages and the COVID-19 crisis has made these realities worse.

In addition, Rhode Island has long had a crisis of affordable housing, and no dedicated state funding to address the problem.

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, provides more recent data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation and states like Rhode Island. It shows thousands of Rhode Island adults and children are struggling to afford adequate food and pay for housing:

  • 13% (106,000) of adults reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days
  • 21% (58,000) of adults with children reported that their kids sometimes or often didn’t eat enough in the last seven days because they couldn’t afford it
  • 20% (40,000) of adults who live in rental housing reported that they were behind on rent
  • 31% (60,000) of all children live in a family that is either not getting enough to eat or behind on housing payments (rent or mortgage)
  • 52% (35,000) of all children who live in renter households live in a family that is behind on rent and/or didn’t get enough to eat.

What are the most urgent needs of women in Rhode Island at this time?

We need jobs that pay family sustaining wages. Affordable, quality child care so women can go to work and not worry about their children. Access to paid family leave and paid sick days so they can juggle work and family obligations. Job training including adult basic education services such as English Language services. And everyone needs affordable, safe housing.

What supports do you believe have been most essential/helpful for women during the pandemic?

Many of the pandemic-related benefits have been critical for women and their families: Expanded unemployment and increased payments (especially the $600/week PUA) and one-time stimulus payments, in addition to moratoriums on evictions and access to flexible paid leave policies. Full SNAP benefits and Pandemic EBT (to compensate for loss of school meals) have been essential. For women receiving TANF benefits for their family, the two additional payments equal to a month of benefits were particularly helpful to families living in deep poverty.

What are the top 3 policies that you hope policymakers in [state] prioritize in the new year?

First, we must consider raising taxes on those most able to afford to pay—those in the top 1 percent—so that the state has adequate revenue to fund investments in Rhode Islanders. Second, we need affordable, quality child care. Lastly, we need improved paid sick and paid family leave.

There are ongoing conversations about what another federal relief package might look like. What are the key features of a federal package that would address the economic insecurity of women in your state?

States need so much support from the federal government right now. Just some of the things we think are imperative for the federal package to include are:

  • Extended and expanded paid sick and paid family leave.
  • Increased funding for subsidized child care programs.
  • Look back for Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit (so that credits are based on tax year 2019 instead of 2020).
  • Continued moratorium on evictions and support for rental assistance and affordable housing.
  • Extended unemployment.

We must act immediately. Women and families in Rhode Island – and across the country – cannot wait.