GUEST COLUMN:

Women’s economic agenda is critical for Nevadans

The COVID-19 crisis poses a tremendous threat to the long-term well-being of women, as we risk losing decades of progress toward equity for women in the workforce. This crisis will have a much more devastating impact on women’s financial security than even the Great Recession — through both income loss and wealth destruction. We need to act now to keep women in the labor force and protect their incomes as this pandemic unfolds.

Before the pandemic, women in Nevada were making gains, although a significant wealth gap remained, particularly for women of color. Here, women made 86 cents for every dollar men earned — and that was much lower for Black women (64 cents), Native women (58 cents) or Latinas (54 cents). Not only were women’s median incomes lower than those of men across all age groups and levels of education, but in 2018, women held on average just a third of men’s wealth. In the case of low-income women, the disparity was even steeper. For instance, in 2007, a single woman earning $31,000 had about $1,500 in household wealth, compared with $20,000 for a single man with the same income.

But that was pre-2020. Nevadans now are experiencing the economic consequences of the pandemic unequally, with women facing more intense economic pressures. We’ve seen this before. Economic downturns can have different impacts depending in part on socioeconomic trends that predate them. During the 2008 financial crisis, for example, more men lost their jobs than women, with many losses centered in the construction and manufacturing industries. This crisis is different, with the amplifying effects of lockdowns and school closures that disproportionately harm women. In September in Nevada, the rise in unemployment over 2020 was 78 percentage points worse for women than for men.

What’s behind the greater drop in employment for women? Partly, it’s a result of the caregiving role that women still shoulder. Nationally, millions of students are attending school virtually, including most of the more than 300,000 students in Clark County. And with many aging parents unable to leave their homes, the demands of caregiving have escalated to the breaking point. It’s no wonder that roughly 20% of women say they are considering leaving their jobs to care for their families, according to a new study by McKinsey and LeanIn.org. The wage gap makes this problem worse — in two-income households where child care is unavailable, the spouse earning less often takes over the child-caring role. And in single-parent families — which in Clark County account for 39% of households — working mothers face even more difficult choices.

But women who are forced to quit their jobs face serious financial consequences. Leaving the workforce even briefly has a harmful effect on lifetime earnings: on average, it results in a 7.3% reduction in pay, fewer raises, promotions and tenure awards, and lower Social Security contributions and savings, leading to higher poverty rates for elderly women. Nationally, 16% of women 65 and older live in poverty, compared with 12% of men, and that number jumps to over 20% for older single women.

These losses in workforce participation will further depress women’s income relative to men and drain years of accumulated capital from women’s bank accounts. And even when jobs return, women who have lost homes or cars will struggle to find new opportunities. In the absence of a significant set of policies — and, if necessary, funding to implement them — women could find themselves set back by decades.

As we continue working to blunt the negative economic impacts of this pandemic, policymakers must act not only to improve families’ immediate economic stability, but also to strengthen the supports that help women and families capitalize on work opportunities. That’s why we are advocating for more relief for families, including affordable child care, access to health care, and protections from domestic violence, which has escalated during the lockdowns. We also need to promote a culture across all sectors that in turn creates more work opportunities for women. We can foster that culture by increasing diversity and equality in the federal workforce, encouraging female representation in the board room, expanding access to capital for women entrepreneurs, enforcing equal pay, and ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment to finally make gender equality part of the Constitution.

Women in Nevada occupy nearly 60% of frontline jobs during this pandemic, according to a Guinn Center study on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. We’re asking a lot of these women workers, and we need to make sure we repay their contributions. As women continue to exit the labor force over the coming months, we need a long-term plan to ensure that they can reenter. Taking action now to advance gender equality could add $2.7 trillion to U.S. GDP by 2025. If we take significant and immediate steps — from legislation to employer policies to financial lending — we will not only close the wealth gap but create a stronger, more stable economy that assists women in climbing out of this recession. Policymakers must do more to ensure women’s resilience in the workforce. Let’s get to work.

Heather Murren is a former commissioner on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, and Catherine Cortez Masto was elected in 2016 to represent Nevada in the U.S. Senate.