Women & Economic Power

In 2020, COVID-related childcare issues forced many women, particularly women of color, out of the workforce: 617,000 women left the workforce in September alone, compared with only 78,000 men, with 1 in 4 women considering leaving the workforce.

On March 18, 2020 the federal government passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), authorizing paid leave at two-thirds salary for parents and caregivers of children and dependents whose schools or facilities closed as a result of COVID-19.

As reported by the Hennepin County affiliate of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), most of the predominantly female workplace of county employees cannot afford a one-third pay cut. “This has left the hardest-hit— low-paid workers, single parents, and parents with single-income households —with no relief. Further, this leave is set to expire on December 31, leaving hundreds of working parents with no recourse. Many workers are unable to work remotely, have long exhausted their leave, and have relied on unemployment which offers only 60 percent of wages.”

Minnesota Women’s Press is dipping into past reporting to remind readers of how long women have been seeking greater economic power. Here are a few excerpted stories from our legacy, as included in “35 Years of Minnesota Women.”

Would Women Shape a Different Economy?

by Elizabeth Noll, March 2006

Classic economic theory was created with a perspective skewed to one gender. “It’s embedded in the very structure of economics,” said Ann Markusen, an economist and a professor at the University of Minnesota.

Barbara Bergmann, a retired economics professor, former president of the International Association for Feminist Economics and co-author of “America’s Child Care Problem: The Way Out,” said child care is one of the most critical issues for women today — and few economists are pushing for it. “The two things that would help [low income women] the most are universal health care and some help with child care,” she said. “The latter is nowhere. It’s not even on the back burner.”

When It Comes to Childcare, You Haven’t Come Very Far

by Mary Junge, July 1998

Supportive systems for working parents, including quality childcare that is affordable and accessible, have developed agonizingly slowly, if at all. In 1898, Charlotte Perkins Gilman proposed community housing to facilitate shared cooking, day nurseries and professional housecleaners so that women would have the freedom to pursue economic independence and engage in interests outside their nursery/governess role. One hundred years later, women continue struggling to balance work and family.

Homemaking and childcare have “long been women’s free gift to society,” maintained Arvonne Fraser, activist. She believes this problem has gotten worse in modern times. “We all do it – try to do two jobs – juggle until we are at the breaking point. In industrial America, we expect women to somehow do it alone.”

A 1993 analysis by AECP showed that fewer than 33 percent of childcare workers received health insurance, thought they were routinely exposed to illnesses and high stress.

Meanwhile, Minnesota parents and children will continue coping with the harsh realities of our present system.

Paid Family Leave

by Elizabeth Noll, October 2004

Say you’re nine months pregnant. You’ll be out of work for the next three months taking care of your newborn, but you’re not worried about your family’s finances. Why? Because you’ll receive 100 percent of your wages during your parental leave.

Quick: what country are you in?

If you guessed Norway or the Netherlands, you’re right. If you guessed Bangladesh or India, you’re also right. Cameroon, Zambia, Brazil or Mexico: also right. In fact, nearly 60 countries offer working mothers 100 percent paid leave for 12 weeks or more. Another 60 or so offer some variation on that formula. In fact, there are only a handful of countries that provide new parents no paid leave. Among them: the United States.

Minnesota Sen. Ellen Anderson (DFL-St. Paul/Falcon Heights), has been hammering on the issue of paid family leave for years. “We need our companies to be in that dialogue, and political leaders need to have a genuine dialogue about how they’re going to support families.”

State Childcare Cuts Hit Families Hard

by Michele St. Martin, March 2004

Last year the Minnesota Legislature slashed state spending on childcare subsidies to low income and lower-middle-income working families by 50 percent, or $86 million over a two-year period. 

Cuts to the subsidy program are also being blamed for the closing of some 30 childcare facilities statewide.

[One family’s] bill skyrocketed from $523 to $1,700 a month. Their income just covered their bill for childcare and the $900 monthly mortgage payment on their small south Minneapolis home, with no money left over for food, utilities, transportation, or other expenses. They got behind on mortgage payments and feared they’d lose their house. They were referred to an unlicensed home provider, but the arrangement came with a price tag they ultimately couldn’t accept: lower-quality care.

The daycare provider had many visitors, forgot to give the baby medication for her double ear infections, and even fed the baby another mother’s breast milk by mistake. [The mother] took an extended unpaid leave of absence from her job at the University of Minnesota to stay home with the children, and the family applied for welfare. [Then the husband] was laid off from his full-time job.

Rep. Fran Bradley (R-Rochester), an architect of last year’s childcare cuts, responds: “It sounds to me like those are pretty expensive tastes in childcare. When you’re looking for childcare, you have to be a careful shopper.” Despite the stories of hardships, Bradley said he continues to support the reforms, and he is proposing further reductions in state spending on childcare this session. “In general, I think they’re working fine,” he said.

When she heard about plans for additional cuts to childcare funding, Willmar’s Donna Brau, director of childcare programs for the Kandiyohi County YMCA, said she is reminded of the old bumper sticker that read: “It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.”

The Co$t of Caring

by Kendall Anderson, August 2007

For two years, Nancy Flanary rose at 6 a.m. to grind her mother’s vitamins, feed her through a tube, turn her frail body and clean her soiled sheets. Between that work and the regular lifting and transporting of her mother to the doctor, Nancy and her two sisters enabled their mother to live her final years in the comfort and love of family. Between 59 percent and 75 percent of the caregivers are female.

Contributing to that huge cost savings to the state is Sherrill Ross (name changed for privacy reasons), 40, a Maple Grove mother of two. For a year, Ross has kept her mother, who has dementia, out of institutional care by keeping her in the family’s townhome. But because the family has little savings, the extra spending on food, all-day air conditioning and transporting her mother to and from appointments at far-flung locations has been too much.

“Small expenses — going through a six-pack of toilet paper in two days instead of a week, keeping the house cool all the time — add up,” said Ross. “We’ve cut back all around and are just trying to make it to next week. To be honest, we’ve used a food shelf several times.”

“I never got back into the job market,” said Flanary, who lives in Hugo, 20 minutes northeast of the Twin Cities. She is not alone; many caregivers are learning that in choosing to care for their parents, they are making a decision that impacts them long term in a way they had never imagined.

Second Class Citizens

by Kelly Westhoff, March 2005

Minneapolis is home to one of the nation’s largest populations of urban Native Americans. Despite this, the Minneapolis Public School Board had never had a Native American member until last fall. In November 2004, Peggy Flanagan, a 25-year-old member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, successfully won election to the board.

No woman of color has ever held a statewide elected office in Minnesota.

The recent Women’s Foundation of Minnesota report, “The Status of Women of Color in Minnesota,” shines a glaring light on how the state is failing women of color on issues like health care, education, and economic well-being. “Our finds were shocking,” admitted Lee Roper-Batker, president of the Women’s Foundation. “In Minnesota, we see ourselves as progressive. But we learned that a Black woman in Minnesota is paid less than a Black woman in Tennessee.”

We asked three Minnesota women of color who are working key positions what they thought was going on, and what they think we can do to help women of color succeed.

1) Representation — Too few women of color are running for political office. Representative Neva Walker (DFL-Minneapolis) knows this all too well. One of only two women of color elected to the state legislature, Walker said part of the problem is the lack of political role models.

2) Spending cuts fuel achievement gap — Senator Mee Moua (DFL-St. Paul) has represented St. Paul’s East Side neighborhood since 2002. The nation’s first Hmong-American legislator, Moua has focused much of her attention on education. The state’s achievement gap between white students and students of color is a direct result of cuts to education spending at all levels, she said.

“The legislature has done a lot of damage to important school services,” Moua said. “Once upon a time, we used to be really good about adult basic education, about English as a second language classes. We used to be really good about re-educating and retraining all sectors of our workers. But if you look at just the last four legislative sessions, if you look at all those areas, they’ve been dramatically cut and dramatically reduced. When those institutions are underfunded and not getting the help that they need, they can’t open their doors to be more embracing to people who are disadvantaged.”

Poverty rate for Asian American, Native American, and Black women in Minnesota are higher than for the nation as a whole.

Young woman of color face household and economic pressures that get in the way of school. “Many young women growing up in an economically distressed household feel pressure to contribute to their family’s income,” Moua explained. “When you’re living in economically distressed situations, education begins to become irrelevant.”

3) Hennepin County Administrator Sandy Vargas says the culture of  “Minnesota Nice” has contributed to the state’s dismal figures regarding women of color, both in terms of education and economics. “We don’t know how to talk with each other about hard issues, about race, about immigration, about poverty,” she said. “We have a great quality of life, but in some communities, that quality is low. Many are slow to recognize that. Our lack of conversation is part of the problem. How do we create a dialogue of respect to solve these problems?”

Vargas draws a distinction between situational poverty (poverty stemming from a health crisis or job loss) and generational poverty. While a person dealing with situational poverty may need government assistance to help maintain an income, families dealing with generational poverty need more than welfare check. “We don’t have our attention as a state focused to work with generational poverty to get people on track,” Vargas said.