Sustaining Ourselves in a Jobless Economy

Black women are under attack. I live in Atlanta, Georgia where Black women suffer the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state. Georgia, where state-sanctioned violence proliferates through the recent murders of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back and killed by an Atlanta police officer, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot dead by white supremacists making a “citizen’s arrest” while he was out for a jog. In nearby Kentucky, Breonna Taylor was shot dead in her home by police serving a no-knock warrant at the wrong house. Although violence against Black cis- and transgender women receives less national attention, the dual threats of bodily harm from coronavirus infection and state-sanctioned violence are palpable for Black women. 

And if threats to our livelihood, health, and humanity are not enough, our financial security is also at stake. The U.S. economy gained 2.5 million jobs in May, yet the unemployment rate for Black women increased to 16.5%. Black women have fewer job protections and face higher levels of job loss during this recession. Racist and patriarchal structures have often relegated Black women to low-paid, female-dominated occupations with fewer labor protections and lack of access to benefits like healthcare, paid leave, and retirement accounts. Consequently, Black women are overrepresented in jobs like retail, hospitality, restaurants, and child care that have eliminated workers during this pandemic. These job losses will have sizeable impacts on our families and communities, especially given that Black women are more likely to be sole or primary breadwinners for their households. Some of these jobs will remain permanently lost, and Black women may face structural barriers—like hiring discrimination—when seeking employment, shoving them even further behind. 

Congress has responded to the pandemic and ensuing economic recession by passing the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to help mitigate the impacts of these twin crises. While these laws provide some temporary safeguards—like expanding access to paid sick time and child care leave for some workers, increasing and extending Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits, and providing recovery payments directly to some taxpayers and families—these provisions are woefully insufficient to meet Black women’s economic needs. Additional reforms and permanent policy changes are necessary to help Black women sustain ourselves in a jobless economy.

Unemployment Insurance

The CARES Act established three new UI programs that extend UI benefits an additional 13 weeks, pay recipients an additional $600 per week on top of state UI benefits, and provide 39 weeks of benefits for self-employed workers and other people who are otherwise ineligible for UI. However, these benefits are scheduled to terminate at the end of July 2020, and some people who filed for benefits months ago have yet to receive any payments. The HEROES Act (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act), a fourth relief package initiated by the House that is being held up by the Senate, would extend these UI programs through January 2021. However, the UI system is in need of permanent reforms to address the broken unemployment infrastructures exacerbated by this crisis. The Economic Policy Institute recommends several structural reforms including: requiring states to enact shared-work programs, filling holes in the unemployment safety net, creating minimum state standards around benefit length and generosity, and creating a jobseeker allowance of 13 weeks. Others have argued that a full wage-replacement for low-income earners is necessary.  

Guaranteed Income

Unemployment Insurance is a necessary, yet temporary, wage replacement to help keep families afloat during pandemic lay-offs, but as people return to the workforce we need to pay them living wages. Given that Black women are more likely to work in jobs that pay less than $11 per hour, increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 would have disproportionate positive impacts for our financial livelihood. In addition to raising the minimum wage, some progressives are calling for a guaranteed income that provides a foundation upon which earned income can be layered. A tiered guaranteed income approach could address racial and gender economic inequity by providing payments based on historic disadvantage and household wealth. 

The Magnolia Mother’s Trust—founded by BlackHer Shero  Aisha Nyandoro, CEO of Springboard to Opportunities—is already providing guaranteed income for Black mothers with low-incomes in Jackson, Mississippi. In the first year of the pilot, they provided unconditional cash transfers of $1,000 per month for one year to twenty Black mothers to supplement their existing income. The results indicated that recipients were able to pay down over $10,000 in debts, 80% were able to pay all of their bills without additional support (up from 37%), and 100% said they have enough money to meet their basic needs. A second pilot consisting of 75 women is underway.

Federal Jobs Guarantee

Another possible strategy to address mounting unemployment is to establish a federal jobs guarantee that eliminates involuntary unemployment for all adult workers who want a job to bring the country to full employment. A federal jobs guarantee could provide a public option for a living wage job with full benefits on projects that meet community needs. For example, some proponents have noted that in this moment we could hire and train workers to conduct the community-based testing, monitoring, and contact tracing necessary to contain the coronavirus and safely reopen the economy.

Reforming unemployment insurance, providing living wages or a guaranteed income, and establishing a federal jobs guarantee are feasible solutions that are long overdue. In his 1968 book, “Where Do We Go From Here?”, Dr. Martin Luther King Junior called for a jobs guarantee or a minimum income so that “dignity will come within reach of all.” These and other strategies for economic equity were at the center of the Poor People’s Campaign. Dr. King recognized that our humanity, dignity, and economic security are inextricably tied. Now, more than 50 years later, we continue fighting for a society that values Black lives and an economy that serves the people instead of the other way around. This pandemic, economic recession, and racial reckoning presents an opportunity to reset our priorities as a society and build a better future that effectuates dignity and justice for all.



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