Economic Downturn Hits Women the Hardest

Women are being disproportionately affected by the U.S. mortgage crisis and economic plunge.

WASHINGTON, Nov 20 -- Women are being disproportionately affected by the U.S. mortgage crisis and economic plunge, said a panel of women leaders Wednesday, urging a strong woman-focused response from the federal government.

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In Rhode Island, the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country, one woman has not been able to find a job for the past eight months and is losing her house to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. Another, struggling to take care of her 14-year-old granddaughter because her own daughter is in jail, is a tenant in a building that is being foreclosed. She is being evicted by the bank, even though she is willing to pay rent.

These women's stories, told by Sara Mersha, the executive director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality (DARE) in Rhode Island, are part of what she calls the "economic Katrina."

Mersha spoke along with other women's rights advocates at a teleconference sponsored by the Ms. Foundation for Women called, "Lifted Up or Left Out? Economic Stimulus Policy that Benefits Low-Income Women." The experts discussed the challenges facing women in the United States today and policies that could make a difference.

Mersha said the current sub-prime mortgage crisis is similar to the 2005 hurricane not only in terms of scale -- the number of people affected -- but also who is being hit the hardest. She said that in Rhode Island, most of the foreclosures and evictions are happening in poor communities and neighborhoods with African-American or Latino residents. DARE is doing a local research study concerning the crisis. While visiting homes being foreclosed, Mersha noticed another disturbing trend: "There are disproportionate numbers of women behind those doors," she said.

The effects of the sub-prime mortgage crisis on women are exacerbated by other, pre-existing problems, according to the panelists. Sara Gould, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation, said that out of the 37 million Americans living in poverty, 27 million are women and children. In fact, she added, single mothers and their families are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic group in the United States.

Panelists agreed that there is not an adequate support system to help these women living in poverty. Fully two thirds of the minimum wage and below-minimum wage workforce in the United States are women, said Gould. For many of these workers, the laws are inadequate to protect their rights.

Ai-jen Poo, a lead organizer and founder of Domestic Workers United in New York City, advocates on behalf of a huge low-wage workforce: domestic workers. Ai-jen said that in the city, 200,000 women are employed as domestic workers.

She told the story of a woman who worked for a family for three years before she was called and told not to come to work the next day. She was replaced by someone who would work for half the amount she had been paid. Without notice and with no severance pay, this woman was left to figure out how to put food on the table for her own four children.

Ai-jen said she gets calls like this every day from women wondering what their rights are. The truth is, she said, there are no laws in the domestic work sector concerning severance pay or notice.

"There is no safety net," she said. "We're realizing that 25,000 jobs lost at Lehman Brothers means 25,000 jobs in jeopardy for domestic workers."

Nancy Duff Campbell, co-president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, DC, said the creation of a safety net begins with an economic stimulus package. The first stimulus package, released in February, had very little effect, Campbell said, but the new ideas being proposed by Democrats may help build long-term solutions.

According to Campbell, the essential elements of a "safety net" would include an extension of unemployment benefits and more funding to support programs that many women depend on. 

Campbell emphasized that unemployment benefits should not just be extended, but also expanded to cover more people. This would help all those who have lost jobs in the economic crisis, many of whom are women. Campbell said this is an opportunity to push for better unemployment compensation for part-time and low-wage workers.

Campbell said another element that should be included in the economic stimulus package is money to increase food-stamp benefits, WIC benefits for low-income women and children, and other programs to help people cope with rising food costs. Most of the beneficiaries of these programs are women and their children, said Campbell.

The package should also help states that are suffering in the economic crisis. For example, Campbell said, if the federal government funds a larger share of the Medicaid program, it takes some of the burden off state budgets and prevents cuts in other state programs on which many women depend, like child care.

Mersha said that even half the money devoted to the $700 billion government bailout for banks could have a huge impact on housing, jobs, health care, education, and other social programs that would benefit women and communities.

The government should focus on increased investment in programs that "prevent folks from being in a situation where they have nowhere else to turn," said Mersha. "We need a fundamental shift in our priorities."