Elba, a 43-year-old mixed race mother, works as a personal support worker, caring after people with major cognitive issues in the Portland, Oregon area.
“It’s a hard job but I feel good about it, taking care of them,” Elba told me in 2019. “But it pays very little.”
Elba is not alone in earning poverty wages for critical care work. A 2022 study revealed that 40 percent of all working women in the U.S. make less than $15 an hour, and many of those wage-poor women are mothers.
In late 2019, Elba helped her 22-year-old daughter, also a single mom, who worked part-time as a food server while attending community college. Elba juggled her work hours around her 10-year-old son’s school days, her daughter’s job and college classes, and her 2-year-old granddaughter’s hours of state subsidized daycare. She and her daughter tag-teamed, alternating shifts, education, and care work, passing children back and forth.
Then, the global Covid-19 pandemic upended their fragile rhythm.
Headlines throughout 2020 announced the startling news that women were hit the hardest by the pandemic and left the labor force at historic rates. Low wage women, many of them women of color, were hit hardest of all. By 2021, even as the economy began to slowly recover, unemployment rates among Black women and Latinas were nearly double that of white women, with unemployment rates at 8.9 percent and 8.5 percent respectively.
While Elba’s story may not be as eye-catching as the millions of professional mothers who left labor force when the Covid-19 pandemic down childcare and schools, the disruptions in care that grabbed headlines during the pandemic have always served as a constant stressor for the low-income families that raised 38 percent of the nation’s children in 2019, and that number is likely to be even higher now when accounting for the pandemic job losses.
Low-income mothers know all about care in times of crisis. These women work jobs with unpredictable schedules that ignore traditional childcare hours, and access to that crucial public childcare is completely dependent upon employment. At any moment their employers may schedule them for additional hours, which could suddenly and temporarily place them above the income eligibility line. And once affordable childcare is gone, low-income mothers are forced to drop out of the workforce, which in-turn results in a loss of income and makes these families susceptible to eviction, and the cycle continues.
But if caring in times of economic crisis weren’t enough, mothers and policy makers will soon need to consider climate crisis and how it will impact care.
In the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, for example, researchers explored how gender figured into that catastrophic event. They noted that, in the face of floods and fires, women are more likely to be slowed down by caring for children in times of evacuation. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reported that in the aftermath of Katrina, two-thirds of New Orleans’ child care facilities remained closed two years after the storm leaving mothers and other care givers to cope on their own. While labor traditionally performed by men is far more visible – repairing housing, building new levees, and redesigning greenspace – behind the public scene mothers are repairing people.
Elaine Enarson , a disaster sociologist, notes that crisis demands on women are “exceptional and exceptionally invisible.” Elba would agree as she struggles to stabilize her family more than two years after the pandemic. In the aftermath of catastrophe – whether a catastrophic climate event or global pandemic – she and other low-income mothers are tasked with getting their children settled back in school, stabilizing elderly kin, and rebuilding vital social networks, all without the resources wealthier people use to buy their way out of hardship.
Escaping crises is a collective marathon low-income mothers are overwhelmingly burdened by, and unfortunately, that burden doesn’t go away after the storm passes. In the years after Katrina, widespread wildfires, heat domes, and epidemics in the years that followed have only underscored the need for childcare that is accessible to all. As climate change and new pandemics guarantee future upheavals in care, investing in childcare for all of the nation’s children, is as essential as supporting renewable energies, green jobs and systems of emergency response.