Overrepresentation in consumer-facing jobs, poverty and lack of wealth are all aspects that put women of color in high levels of physical and financial danger during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hospitality, childcare, leisure, retail and food service industries are oversaturated by women of color, and pose significant pandemic risks. First, these are jobs that can’t be done remotely. Second, many of the workers in these job occupations are unable to afford to take time off, and paid sick leave isn’t guaranteed in the United States. Along with paid sick leave, the inadequacies in policy in the United States have left other social safety nets, such as insurance, family medical leave and benefits out of reach for many in low-paying, consumer-facing jobs. These industries are taking the biggest pandemic-related losses through lay-offs, cut hours and efforts to social distance, resulting in increased financial instability and mass unemployment that has disproportionately affected women of color.
Poverty intensifies the impacts of COVID-19. Women of all racial and ethnic backgrounds are more likely to live in poverty than White, non-Hispanic males, but this is especially true for women of color. In 2015, 23.1% of Black women lived in poverty, compared to 9.6% of White women and 7.1% of White men. The social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have significantly more potential to disrupt and overwhelm the lives of those in or close to poverty. Lack of access to social safety nets, inability to afford high medical costs and lack of resources to prepare and protect against the coronavirus put these communities at higher danger for not only contracting the virus but also sustaining the most financial damage and health risks.
On the same coin as poverty, the gendered and racialized wealth divide further aggravates the social and economic effects of COVID-19 among women of color. A family’s ability to accumulate and grow capital, whether that be through their income or other assets such as a home, retirement plans or stocks, plays a major role in how they can react to disruptions or crises in their lives. Having money in the bank may be the difference between a doctor’s visit being a mild inconvenience or a severe financial setback, that in turn has its own set of consequences. In general, women have less wealth than men, but this disparity worsens with consideration of race. According to a 2015 study, the median wealth of single White men was $28,900, compared to $15,640 for single White women. But the median wealth for single Black women was only $200, and for single Latina women, $100. In these cases, people of color and women of color, in particular, do not have the financial standing to withstand one financial crisis, let alone multiple. And in the COVID-19 pandemic, social and economic crises are ample, whether it be a doctor’s visit, a layoff, reduced hours or the need to stay home to take care of a loved one or oneself.
The COVID-19 pandemic was an unexpected development in 2020, but its social and economic effects on women of color were not. Through a history of institutional discrimination and disenfranchisement, women of color were left in the most precarious positions to deal with the global pandemic. Their overrepresentation in the low-paying, consumer-facing market leaves little room for them to access social safety nets, simultaneously, those industries are seeing severe layoffs and cut hours. Additionally, high rates of poverty and the gendered and racialized wealth divide heighten the weight of day-to-day disruptions during the pandemic, turning what would otherwise be mild inconveniences into severe crises with a series of setbacks. Implementing a raise in the national minimum wage and guaranteeing resources such as paid sick leave, family medical leave, paid maternity leave and universal healthcare, in addition to a systemic investment in women of color, is needed now more than ever as this community continues to face the brunt of the pandemic.
Sally Sim in a research consultant for NCRC’s Race, Wealth and Community team, and a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is NCRC’s Chief of Race, Wealth and Community.