More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, this Mother’s Day is a critical time to acknowledge the harms of the pandemic on women in Kentucky — particularly women of color and low-income women — and commit to a recovery that doesn’t just return to the pre-COVID status quo, but that creates the conditions needed for all people and families to thrive.
Historically, state and federal policies have failed to adequately value women’s contributions to the economy and provide the tools and resources families need to make ends meet while managing care responsibilities that women are more likely to shoulder. These failures particularly leave mothers at a disadvantage in a crisis like COVID where, in addition to health challenges, losing jobs and income has created hardship for many, and increased care demands have intensified the strain mothers face.
As of 2020, women of all races in Kentucky still made $0.81 for every $1 men earned, with women of color being paid less than white women. While outright discrimination is a factor, another contributor is that sectors of work where women are overrepresented are more likely to be undervalued and underpaid. Women, for example, comprise nearly 92% of domestic workers like home care aides in Kentucky, and women of color are overrepresented in these roles. These jobs, among the fastest growing in our economy, pay just $0.63 for every $1 all other workers make.
Nationally, 26% of women in the workforce compared to 17% of men earn below $15 an hour, and 70% of tipped workers, among whom poverty is higher, are women. Yet Kentucky’s minimum wage has not been raised from $7.25 since 2009, and the tipped minimum wage has been stuck at $2.13 since 1996. On the heels of a decade of stagnant wages for Kentucky’s public workforce, nearly two-thirds of whom are women, the budget legislators passed this year contained no raises for state workers and teachers. And instead of appropriating federal COVID relief monies to low-income families in the greatest need, the state passed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts and benefits for corporations.
Many women were forced to leave the labor force during the pandemic to provide care at home. A survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 40% of mothers compared to 10% of fathers report being the sole caretaker responsible for taking off work to care for a sick child. Women also constitute the majority of caretakers of older and aging parents, many of whom have faced long, sometimes fatal battles with COVID.
We have a long way to go toward making work work for mothers and families. Kentucky took a good step forward in 2019 with the passage of the Pregnant Workers Act requiring employers to make reasonable accommodations to support maternal and child health. But due to a lack of state or federal paid leave protections, Kentucky workers have among the least access to paid sick leave in the country, with low-income and women of color even less likely to be afforded this protection. Similarly, lacking paid family leave, many new mothers must choose between going back to work before they are ready and losing critical income to support their families. And with inadequate state and federal investments in high-quality child and elder care options, families across Kentucky lack access to affordable care while they work. Many child care centers closed during 2020, and half of Kentuckians already lived in a child care desert.
Relief packages Congress has passed during the pandemic have reflected the urgency of making sure families can get by. Temporary paid sick and parental leave, direct relief to families, monies to keep our child care infrastructure from crumbling even further and more have had a critical impact on our ability to weather this crisis.
But to truly recover — not just from the pandemic but from the status quo that makes so many mothers and families vulnerable — we need lasting policy changes. The American Families and Jobs plans represent a historic opportunity to increase support for underpaid mothers and low-income families through earned income, dependent care and child tax credits as well as nutrition assistance, affordable housing, health insurance subsidies and free higher education. The plans would strengthen our care infrastructure by providing paid family and medical leave and investing in child care, universal pre-school and in-home care for people with disabilities and the elderly.
Chocolates and flowers are nice, but the most transformational thing we can do for the most Kentucky mothers this year is to start building an economy that no longer undervalues and undermines women’s contributions. All of us will benefit.
Anna Baumann is the Deputy Director of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.