The U.S. government can alleviate that acute economic distress, our research suggests, if it advances policies that explicitly account for Latina and Black women’s specific vulnerabilities.
The pandemic hit Black and Latina women hardest
Pandemic shutdowns particularly hit hotels and restaurants, retail and education — economic sectors that disproportionately employ Latina and Black women. According to the Current Population Survey in 2018, 41.1 percent of Latina mothers and 67.5 percent of Black mothers were their families’ primary or sole breadwinners. When they lose their jobs, that hurts their ability to house and care for their families.
What’s more, Black and Latino people tend to be racially segregated into the same neighborhoods, as do, more generally, people working unstable and uncertain jobs. As a result, Latina and Black women’s economic instability also hurts their local communities and neighbors. Despite these cascading effects on communities of color, policy interventions are often not designed to address women’s different economic experiences — which hurts Black and Latina women’s financial well-being.
Latina and Black women don’t benefit as much from policies designed for all women
Protecting Black and Latina women from economic adversity isn’t as simple as passing policies that benefit all women. To find out how economic and social policies helped various groups of women during the Great Recession, we conducted a study that analyzed the relationships between state-level policies and the economic well-being of White, Latina and Black women in 2009.
Our data came from a Census Bureau survey of more than 75,000 Black, Latina and non-Hispanic White women across the United States. This survey included information about key aspects of economic status, such as employment, income and education. We combined this census data with information on a range of state policies, including those that provide support in the form of food, cash, health insurance and other aid.
We then analyzed this combined data to examine whether state policy provisions were correlated with women gaining more education, reducing their levels of poverty or increasing their wages. Even when we controlled for factors such as citizenship, marital status and age, we found that the association between state policies and economic status varied significantly based on women’s race, especially when they were unemployed.
For example, we found that the availability of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) did not improve the economic status of unemployed women equally. Cash assistance was associated with improvements in Latinas’ overall economic status, with no similar boost for Black and White women. Similarly, those eligible for the earned-income tax credit did not uniformly benefit from it. Unemployed Black women had greater improvements in their economic status compared with the others. Meanwhile, employed White women were the beneficiaries of minimum-wage thresholds. This was not the case for Latinas and Black women.
There are many explanations for this outcome. Black and Latina women disproportionately reside in states that block increases in the minimum wage even when local municipalities pass them. Moreover, Black and Latina women are more likely to be concentrated in industries such as service and hospitality that use the sub-minimum wage, which relies on cash tips. During a pandemic, when very few people are using these services, such income becomes even more unreliable.
A one-size-fits-all policymaking approach similarly will not adequately address the current economic crisis, which distinctly disadvantages Latina and Black women. Even a policy that broadly benefited large swaths of the population — like the first stimulus payments, distributed last year — had differential effects across racial groups. That’s because Black and Latino Americans were less likely to file taxes, have a bank account or have a stable residence, which made them less likely to receive such payments.
Policies that improve the lives of women of color
There are no easy solutions for addressing economic racial disparities among women, but some policies confront them more directly than others. Several of President Biden’s executive orders target social and economic policies that are particularly important for Black and Latina women.
For example, because Black women carry more student loan debt and are more likely to be evicted than any other group, they’ll be particularly helped by executive orders extending the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and continuing the pause on student loan payments.
Similarly, low-income Latinas are disproportionately likely to be uninsured and have benefited significantly from the Affordable Care Act, which increased their access to insurance coverage. As a result, they are likely to make further gains from Biden’s executive order strengthening Medicaid and the ACA by opening enrollment for federal health-care marketplaces and directing federal agencies to reexamine policies that impede health insurance access.
Of course, executive orders are largely stopgap measures. If the Biden administration wishes to support economic stability and mobility for Black and Latina women, it could consider tailored federal legislation that pays attention to how policies affect women of color. This approach could support Biden’s announced goals of advancing racial and gender equity.
What kinds of policies might move in that direction? Policies that create jobs are especially imperative. Biden’s executive order on “Ensuring a Sustainable Health Workforce” will establish a very modest public health jobs corps. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) proposes going much further, with a law establishing a national job corps employing “hundreds of thousands of Americans” to administer vaccine, especially to communities of color. Such jobs would employ women of color, who make up a sizable share of health workers and live in communities hardest hit by the coronavirus.
Policy efforts that attend to race and gender are more likely to foster an equitable economic recovery — one that doesn’t leave Black and Latina women behind.
Margaret Teresa Brower is a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago whose research focuses on how laws and public policies affect women differently by race, ethnicity and class.
Jamila Michener (@povertyscholar) is an associate professor of government at Cornell University, co-director of the Cornell Center for Health Equity, co-director of the Politics of Race, Immigration, Class and Ethnicity (PRICE) Initiative and author of “Fragmented Democracy: Medicaid, Federalism and Unequal Politics” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).