In recognition of Poverty Awareness Month, this month’s guest contributor is Taifa Smith Butler, president and CEO of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute (GBPI), a grantee of AWF’s Women’s Pathway to Success Program. Last year, GBPI produced AWF’s Women Powered Prosperity in Metro Atlanta report that outlined the economic status of women. The report showed that while there are still many systemic barriers preventing women from achieving economic self-sufficiency, there were areas of improvement. However, as Taifa shares in this post, the economic impact of COVID-19 on women has erased many of these gains.
This is why the work of AWF is more important than ever. Through our Women’s Pathway to Success Program and Breaking Barriers, Building Women: Economic Empowerment Program, we continue to provide funding and support to the nonprofit organizations that are helping women to eliminate barriers and lead healthy, safe, and economically self-sufficient lives.
For the last few years, GBPI has been working to advance an economic opportunity agenda for Georgia women. Offering a policy agenda with a gender lens and partnering with organizations focused on women’s economic empowerment—particulary women of color—was important work for us to embrace. Traveling the state, hearing countless experiences from women in metro Atlanta, Savannah, Albany and Athens regarding hardships they face to put food on their table or pursue higher education so they can get something better than their back-breaking, labor-intensive job that pays poverty wages. The faces of these front-line, essential workers grounded me in the reality that this economy is riddled with inequitable. And then comes COVID-19, exposing that inequity and further devastating people of color, low-wage workers and women.
In Georgia, women represent nearly half of the workforce and in two-thirds of Georgia families mothers are the primary or co-breadwinners. Preexisting conditions like systemic racism, gender discrimination, lack of paid leave, pay inequities, and limited health care access have contributed to their economic hardship. The latest numbers released from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on January 8, indicate that women continue to bear the brunt of the economic fallout. Women held 55 percent of all the net jobs lost since the pandemic began, and just last month held 100 percent of all the jobs lost. This is a troubling trend not just for women and their families, but for our overall economy.
Before COVID-19, Georgia women were making slow, marked progress in some areas. Rates of poverty were improving, though Black and Latinx women were more likely to live below the federal poverty line and 79 percent of all poverty-wage jobs were held by women. This factor alone made women susceptible to loss at the height of the pandemic because industries like retail, hospitality and food service, where they are over-represented, shuttered, causing massive job loss.
The economic effects are far reaching. The unemployment rate for women is now two times higher at 6 percent, compared to just 3 percent before the pandemic. Georgia women filed unemployment insurance claims at higher rates than men since April. As of December, 1 in 4 child care providers remain closed. This affects women’s ability to re-enter or stay in the workforce. School closures and remote learning continue to create challenges for women who are caregivers. Even the state budget cuts and furloughs disproportionately affected women and people of color, because 66 percent of state workers are women and 55 percent are people of color—and Black Georgians make up 95 percent of those state workers.
For Metro Atlanta and Georgia to recover from this pandemic recession, we must give careful attention to the systemic barriers that have hindered the economic progress of women. With COVID-19 cases on the rise, furthering the stress on an already weakened economy, leaders across all sectors—public, private, philanthropic—must work to support the current needs of women, and women of color in particular, and implement sound policies to help women, people of color and low-wage workers recover quickly together. Policies that bolster the safety net, strengthen support for child care and improve the quality of jobs and pay are essential.
Taifa Smith Butler is president and CEO of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, where she leads and inspires the GBPI team to accomplish the organization’s mission and vision to improve economic opportunity for all Georgians. She is a problem solver, tireless champion for equity, working families and investing early in children — Georgia’s greatest asset.
Taifa brings more than 20 years of experience in strategic communications, public policy research and data analysis in the public, nonprofit and private sectors. Prior to joining the GBPI team as deputy director in 2011, she served as the policy and communications director for Georgia Family Connection Partnership where she co-managed the Georgia KIDS COUNT project and monitored public policy and its impact on children, families and communities.