While we might shy away from a term like “women’s work,” we all know what the work of women entails: the unpaid labor of raising children and maintaining a household; the low-wages of nursing, teaching, and other care work; and the often-voluntary nature of community organizing, grassroots campaigns, and charity. Whether or not we call it such, we know what is women’s work (to clarify, “women’s work” is also performed by and expected of many transgender and nonbinary folks) based on the lack of social value and financial incentive we attach to it. In the year 2020, we can also recognize it based on its status as essential, which far too often means expendable.
Women are less likely to die from the covid-19 virus than men because they engage in safer behaviors, yet they are more frequently put at risk of exposure in their work. One in three jobs held by women has been designated as essential and over half of essential workers are women, including 77% of health care workers. The women in these jobs are disproportionately women of color, and it should come as no surprise that working conditions and pay decline for workers who are not white. It is also well known that people of color are more likely to die from covid-19, as the pandemic amplifies our existing structural inequities.
Yet, we continue to prioritize economic growth over human life, and we measure that economic growth on the incredibly white-male-centric indicator that is the stock market. It is the stock market and other measures of the formal economy (as if the work of women is so casual as to be “informal”) that have driven Pete Ricketts to determine that Nebraskans do not need emergency food assistance offered through the federal government. His insistence on being the only state to deny SNAP benefits is predicated on devaluing the work and lives of women.
The Omaha World Herald reported that The Food Bank of the Heartland has seen a 61% increase in meal distribution since March. Nebraska has had some of the highest numbers of cases per capita in the country for several weeks, last finding itself on this list in early summer. Twenty senators voiced their disapproval and asked for reconsideration. Yet Ricketts insists that “here in Nebraska, we have a way to show the rest of the country how to get back to normal.” The only normalcy here is the expectation that women will not only bear the burden of this challenge, but also assume responsibility for our collective recovery.
Women have borne the burden of economic distress, loss of childcare, and increased risk in their jobs. Women will mobilize their communities to provide mutual aid and to rebuild their losses. At what cost? The “shadow pandemic” of rising domestic violence, as described by the United Nations, is not taken into Ricketts’s consideration in denying SNAP benefits. He makes no mention that this program serves mostly women and children, who are the most likely to live in poverty. Although even temporary aid could help women and their children in the long run, they appear not to be included in his rationale. Ricketts knows no women in need.
In my own life, women live in poverty and work hard to make ends meet. A woman I love recently got out of an abusive relationship that spanned nearly two decades, and I worry that the stress of the pandemic could drive her back. She works as a paraprofessional, a job that is both poorly-paid and at heightened risk of exposure. There, she must worry about other people’s hungry children who have been denied food security, in addition to her own. While the particular loss of extra SNAP benefits might not spell ruin for her now, it could have in another year. Because in another year, the existing aid was barely, if ever, enough. In another year, a worker earning minimum wage could not afford the average rent in Nebraska. In any given year, nearly 200,000 people in our state live in poverty – ten percent of our population. If we are to insist we be the leaders in getting “back to normal,” why not reevaluate what we think is normal?