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 also 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.
Today we are talking with Melanie R. Bridgeforth, President & CEO of The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham to take a deeper look at what is happening with women in Alabama.
Founded in 1996, The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham, located in Alabama, is the region and state’s only public women’s foundation. They leverage the power of targeted philanthropy, gender-based research, and public policy advocacy to accelerate women’s economic opportunity. They are deeply driven by the understanding that when women move forward, entire communities move with them, which is why they are committed to commissioning and conducting research that illuminates the challenges and opportunities for women to be fully participatory in the formal economy and all walks of public life. They know that insight without action is meaningless, so they fight for public policy changes that are necessary to attack the root causes of systemic gender inequities and create long-lasting change for all.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the impact that the economic recession, record jobless claims, and the shuttering of businesses, schools, and daycare centers has had on women all over the US. As data has shown, however, the impact on women and women’s experiences vary by state. What are you hearing from women in Alabama?
Catastrophes have a tendency to further reveal deep gender and racial disparities that have long existed across our country and magnify the fragility in systems. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular underscores the need for quality safety nets for women and all families, such as quality child care, health care, and paid leave. When the pandemic struck, our first step, after ensuring the safety of our team, was to listen to our community. We heard one thing loud and clear: save child care.
In response to this critical community-identified need, we leaned into our role as philanthropists and created the Rapid Operating and Relief (ROAR) for Women Fund, a new gender-focused emergency relief vehicle of The Women’s Fund, designed to move resources during natural disasters and other unforeseen emergencies. In 2020, the fund was used to provided targeted funding for at-risk child care centers serving essential workers. Nationally, women make up 93 percent of child care workers, 92 percent of nurses, 77 percent of health care workers, and 52 percent of all essential workers. The business owners who received funding (97 percent of whom were women) told us our grant investment kept their doors open by allowing them to meet basic operational needs such as critical cleaning supplies, offer scholarship funds to parents, restock pantry staples, cover utilities, and more.
Parents with children in ROAR-funded centers also gained relief. The director of a ROAR-funded child care center stated, “One mom told me, ‘Knowing my child is in a safe caring environment and they are happy each day when I drop off and pick up means everything. I can concentrate on my work instead of worrying all day. The center opening back up has not only saved my job, but also my sanity.’”
Across the country, the unemployment rate for women continues to outpace men’s as women drop out of the workforce to take on additional child care responsibilities and because of job losses in sectors with high female employment that have been hit hardest by the pandemic, such as the hospitality industry. Alabama is no different. Our latest research report, Status of Women in Alabama, released just this month also reveals that women in Alabama are more likely than men to have filed for unemployment during the pandemic, accounting for 57.3 percent of total claims.
Were there any circumstances pre-COVID that made women in your state vulnerable to the pandemic and economic crisis?
Without a doubt, the pandemic is exacerbating inequalities already faced by women across our region and our state. The Women’s Fund’s 2019 report, Clearing the Path: Building a Sustainable and Inclusive Workforce for Alabama, underscored these challenges with alarming data: In Alabama, women earning less than $30,000 per year spend an average of 39 percent of their income on child care, their labor force participation rate is 10 percent lower than the national average for women, and 48.5 percent of single women with children experience poverty. Our newly released Status of Women in Alabama data reveals that women in Alabama earn only 73 cents for every dollar a man earns, compared to 82 cents for U.S. women overall, and the wage gap is even wider for women of color with Black women making only 58.5 cents and Latina women 48.8 cents for every dollar earned by a White man. Taken together, these statistics – and many others – begin to illuminate the uneven playing field for women in Alabama. Imagine if there were fewer of these barriers—success would extend to families, our economy, and the state as a whole.
What are the most urgent needs of women in Alabama?
Women’s earnings are essential to the economic security of their families. With a fair and equitable wage, access to educational opportunities, and proper health care, women can move themselves and their families forward. We know child care is among the greatest barriers for women entering and staying in the workforce. Access to affordable, quality child care is an urgent need not only for women in Alabama, but for our state’s future prosperity. The state faces a predicted shortage of 500,000 skilled workers by 2025. If we ever hope to address this deficit, women must be a targeted part of the solution. Until child care and other workforce supports like paid leave are seen as critical an infrastructure for the state’s economy as a road or a bridge, it will be difficult for our state to reach its full potential.
Women also need a workforce development system that works for them. We have seen great success by embedding a whole family approach in the state’s community college system—necessary partners in driving economic and social mobility for women. Our homegrown field-tested model combines non-credit skills training and child care with a constellation of wraparound support services, including job placement assistance and family-centered success coaching. Finally, health care has been and certainly remains a huge need for Alabama women. It is never a good time to go without health care, but in a pandemic, the consequences for women and their families can be even more dire. Medicaid expansion in Alabama could extend health care coverage to an additional 340,000 Alabamians, including an estimated 152,000 women.
What supports do you believe have been most essential/helpful for women during the pandemic?
Supports that allow women to keep their jobs—like child care—remain in safe housing and put food on the table are essential in a crisis like COVID-19. Unfortunately for many, the pandemic has exposed the reality that far too many households, including a disproportionate number of women-led households, have been living dangerously close to financial catastrophe long before the pandemic. It is our role to help ensure that community leaders and policymakers fully understand that finite aid packages as well as stop-gap relief funding from nonprofits are necessary but not enough to create permanent change. Long-term policy solutions that center the needs of women and under-resourced communities are essential for an equitable recovery that leaves no woman behind.
What are the top 3 policies that you hope policymakers in Alabama prioritize in the new year?
Unfortunately, our state – and our nation – will deal with the effects of COVID-19 for years to come as the burden has disproportionately impacted our communities. The Women’s Fund commits to closely monitoring policy opportunities that relate directly and indirectly to COVID-19 as they reflect the needs of families and communities.
Our 2021 Agenda for Women is a smart, non-partisan legislative platform that prioritizes public policies that strengthen women’s economic opportunity while building an inclusive workforce and economy to meet the state’s growing demands. It is not enough for us to invest solely in programmatic solutions to accelerate economic opportunity for women. Without meaningful change in systems, women and their families will never have a complete pathway to success, which is why we advocate for equitable policies that break down barriers. Our policy agenda centers economic opportunity for women through:
- Increased access to quality, affordable child care that allows women to join the workforce or keep their job and avoid choosing between being a good parent or a good employee.
- Protecting the health of Alabama women and mothers. Medicaid expansion is critically important to our state and would expand health care to approximately 152,000 women, ultimately leading them to better health outcomes. Additionally, the health of mothers and infants are a clear indicator of how social and economic systems are thriving. Unfortunately, Alabama has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the country. A recent report by the Maternal Mortality Review Committee noted that 70 percent of maternal deaths could have been prevented with an expanded Medicaid program.
- Continued investment from the state to scale proven post-secondary models, created and incubated by The Women’s Fund and community colleges in the Greater Birmingham area, which include training and critical wraparound supports that propel more women into in-demand jobs, including health care, manufacturing, and IT.
- And finally, equitable wages because until women earn a wage comparable to the burden they carry, we will never have equality for women or equity in our systems.
Our policy priorities not only lift up women in Alabama but allow for a better future for all Alabamians by strengthening and creating economic opportunities across our state.
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? What supports does Alabama need from the federal government to bolster the economic security and health and well-being of women in Alabama?
Social change requires federal, state, and local government intervention. While we do not have a federal policy agenda, we leverage our strong and substantial network of sister women’s foundations and allies across the country to strengthen and support policy opportunities for women at the federal level that align with our state agenda.
There are many ways our federal lawmakers can and should engage to bolster economic recovery from COVID-19, especially knowing that the data reflects the significant nature in which women have been impacted – loss of employment and loss of child care – only validates the challenges women are facing on their road to recovery from the pandemic. We must take stock now and address these issues at every level so that we can slow, and hopefully stop, the ripple effects that continue to stifle women and our nation’s economic recovery.