Inflation continues to affect the United States economy. In October, the annual inflation rate, as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), hit 6.2 percent, the highest in thirty years. Rising prices across a large swath of products—including rent, groceries, and gasoline—can mean more uncertainty for individuals and families living on the margins.
For women, high inflation exacerbates an already uneven economic recovery. In response to the child care crisis accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, women’s labor force participation has decreased along with their earnings. Throughout the “she-cession,” women in low-wage jobs, immigrant women, and Black women were hit the hardest. And the gender pay gap continues to worsen an already precarious situation for women, especially women of color, who have fewer financial resources to draw on in times of crisis.
Inflation trends can impact women in different ways. Gendered expectations, like being responsible for a disproportionate share of household shopping, mean that women spend more time in stores, where they may notice variations in prices and feel the stresses of inflation more acutely. Women also spend a significant amount of their income on non-durable household goods, such as food and toilet paper, which are particularly impacted by current trends. The cost of tampons has been increasing since April along with rising prices of women’s and girls’ clothing relative to men’s and boys’.
Historically, inflation most harms people living on a fixed income and those who are in debt. Through this lens, women today are especially at risk of falling further behind. Women hold about two-thirds of student debt, often delay medical care because of medical debt, and are more likely to hold credit card balances relative to men. And, as of December 2016, 55 percent of people who received social security benefits were women—and women received lower average monthly benefits. This (lower) fixed income will not keep up with rising inflation, leaving women less secure in the long run.
To ensure women are not left behind, policy needs to keep up with inflation. For example, federal assistance programs often do not cover all necessities, like baby wipes and diapers. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal block grants do not keep with inflation and have declined 38 percent in value from 1997 to 2020. Without intervention, this decline will likely accelerate. Additionally, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are adjusted for inflation on an annual basis, but inflation trends do not follow review cycles. This means that, as inflation increases throughout the year, the power of benefits wane until the next adjustment. As prices increase, families and individuals who are already struggling will be most affected.
Given that inflation has not been a major economic concern for thirty years, research on the intersectional impacts of inflation is limited and out of date. Measurements of inflation are also highly generalized. For example, the CPI is intended to reflect the “average urban consumer,” but large-scale sampling obscures the economic realities of many communities. This means after buying increasingly expensive diapers, the price a young mother pays is vastly different from the average consumer price index.
We need more information and better solutions. The real-time consequences of inflation on women today must be carefully studied and considered in policy. Continued inflation does not just mean rising prices at the store, it also means rising costs for women across the country.