Editor’s note: This summer, as the urgent issue of racial injustice took center stage, ASA and Justice in Aging embarked upon a series of articles in Generations Today highlighting for the aging advocacy community how aging, identity and racial equity intersect. Called On Aging, Race, Identity and Equity, the articles will run in each issue for a year.
Women, and in particular women of color, face significant barriers to economic security as they age. Older women represent nearly two-thirds of the more than 7 million people older than age 65 living in poverty today.
The seeds of these inequities are sowed early, and amplify throughout the course of many women’s lives. And the barriers women face to economic security are compounded if they are a woman of color, identify as LGBTQ or hold other identities that cause them to experience discrimination in our society.
Civil rights advocate, lawyer and scholar of critical race theory Kimberly Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe how various identities, including race, class and gender operate together, and can compound inequality. Current generations of younger women are right now encountering the inequities that will hinder their ability to achieve economic security as they grow older, and the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic will increase the chance that many women will age into poverty.
Inequities Are Lifelong Issues
Older adult women, especially women of color, have experienced barriers in educational opportunities, employment prospects, housing and a variety of other areas that have resulted in a greater risk of poverty. The gender wage gap still exists, with women making approximately $0.82 for every dollar men earn, and Black and Latina women earn just $0.62 and $0.54, respectively, for every dollar white men earn. This translates into less income to save for retirement, fewer Social Security benefits and less wealth overall.
The seeds of the inequities that younger women will experience as they age are being sowed as the COVID-19 pandemic rages. Women, especially Black women, are overrepresented in low-wage essential jobs, such as home health aides and grocery store clerks. Also, they are overrepresented in low-wage jobs that saw major layoffs due to the pandemic, such as service industry workers. And women play an outsized caregiving role, which is a major contributor to the steep decline in employment for women as COVID-19 shuts down schools and daycare facilities.
'Of the more than 1 million people who dropped out of the workforce in August and September of 2020, eighty percent were women.'
And despite often acting as the primary caregiver for their families, including for older adults, there is little acknowledgement in our society of the financial burden placed on the backs of women as a result, or the significant benefit they provide to families and to our economy. For women of color, these types of inequities are amplified, with systemic racism leading to lower incomes, more precarious housing and poorer health outcomes, among other things, than white men and women.
Of the more than 1 million people who dropped out of the workforce in August and September of 2020, eighty percent were women. In addition, older workers in general have been seriously harmed by COVID-19, not only because of the higher death rate for older people who become infected, but also through unemployment, with those ages 55 and older losing their jobs at a higher rate than younger workers.
Fixing the Systems That Created the Inequities
So, what can be done, not only to recognize these inequities, but also to dismantle the systems that maintain them, to create a more just society? To start, let’s raise up and explicitly value women, and the work that women do, at all ages. This includes supporting legislative proposals that would provide Social Security caregiver credits to people who take time out of the workforce to care for children or other relatives. Other measures to expand and increase Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits would ensure that no older adult would live in poverty.
Paid leave would allow parents to continue to receive an income without fear of losing their jobs, while caring for children or older adult relatives. Investing in more affordable housing would benefit many women, younger and older, who might otherwise end up dealing with the stress of insecure housing or even facing homelessness. These and other policies not only benefit women, but also explicitly address some of the problems that women have disproportionately had to bear.
And if we make the right choices now, we can not only help older adult women today, but generations of women to come.
Tracey Gronniger is the directing attorney of Economic Security at Justice in Aging’s Washington, DC, office.