Poverty, barriers to opportunity loom large for women as NC emerges from the pandemic

North Carolina receives a D+ grade on the Poverty and Opportunity Index

A new report on the status of women in North Carolina suggests that while modest progress has been made since 2016, far too many women are being held back economically.

The NC Department of Administration’s Council for Women and Youth Involvement recently released the report produced in partnership with the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

While North Carolina ranks tenth in the nation when it comes to women-owned businesses, many more women are struggling to make ends meet.

According to the report, women have experienced a disproportionate number of job losses since the start of the pandemic. As of December 2020, 18 percent of women in North Carolina reported applying for unemployment benefits. Over 15 percent reported having a hard time paying their usual household expenses.

North Carolina ranks 44th nationally for its share of women with health insurance.

Lyric Thompson, policy director for the International Center for Research on Women, said even before the pandemic North Carolina was moving in the wrong direction in terms women’s workforce participation.

One policy change that would make a difference is paid leave, according to Thompson.

“The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not mandate paid leave in some form, and North Carolina is one of a handful of states that does not have pregnancy protections, paid leave protections, you name it,” explained Thompson during Tuesday’s virtual panel discussion.

Lyric Thompson, International Center for Research on Women

While Gov. Roy Cooper provided paid parental leave for state government employees in 2019, that benefit is not widely available in the private sector.

Higher rents, fewer options

Adrienne Spinner with the NC Housing Coalition said the pandemic further exploited the ability to cover the most basic needs for some families.

“We saw this with the eviction crisis. There are folks that had to work in and out of the home, and even though wages didn’t go up for a lot of folks, housing costs did,” she explained. “We are severely lacking in quality affordable housing stock in this state and across the country. It is a crisis.”

Spinner said to reduce that inequity, North Carolina must increase its housing stock and reduce the instability families are facing.

“And then if we are going to see women going back to work, and returning to work full-time, that cannot be done without affordable childcare,” Spinner added. “Right now, childcare costs more for some folks than in-state college tuition.”

Universal Pre-k should be a priority, Spinner added.

Adrienne Spinner, NC Housing Coalition

For women of color the strain is greater

NCDOA Secretary Pam Cashwell said the 2022 Status of Women report highlights that poverty remains a persistent problem.

“North Carolina remains 38th in the country for the percentage of women living in poverty. That number is 13.6 percent overall, but again there is a great disparity between women of color and white women,” Cashwell said Tuesday.

“In North Carolina households headed by single women with children are more than five times as likely to live in poverty that households headed by married couples with children.”

Dr. Jada Brooks, an associate professor with the University of North Carolina School of Nursing, said domestic violence is yet another problem made worse by the prolonged pandemic.

“Often times this hasn’t been highlighted in North Carolina. The everyday lives of women, including the exposure to violence, all of those things can really compromise women’s health.”

Spinner told the online audience that North Carolina must have more equitable policies that help uplift the most marginalized.

“Just because you’re helping someone doesn’t mean that someone else gets less. If you uplift the most marginalized folks in society, we all rise.”

Lifting the most marginalized should also include a hike in the state’s minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, stressed Thompson.

“There’s zero statutory requirement on equal pay by race or gender. So, there’s really a lot of tools we could use,” Thompson said.

Higher education offers some protections

NCDOA Secretary Pam Cashwell

The report notes ‘higher levels of educational attainment are associated with higher earnings and increased job opportunities’ but educational attainment among women varies greatly across NC counties.

In 45 of the states 100 counties, the share of women aged 25 and older who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher is less than 20 percent.

Hyde County has the lowest percentage with just 10% holding a bachelor’s or higher.

Greater representation could change the landscape

One way to change the current economic landscape is to get more women elected to public office.

“In North Carolina, women are slightly more likely to vote than women nationally, but we are not well represented in executive and legislative elected offices,” said Sec. Cashwell, noting North Carolina has only had one female governor.

In the NC Senate, 20 percent of the seats are held by women. In the NC House, women hold 28 percent of the seats.

“We clearly have more work to do.”

North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls said from her perspective the most important thing is to make it more financially affordable for women to run for office and then hold office once elected.

North Carolina Supreme Court Associate Justice Anita Earls

“We think of political participation as voting, but that’s just a one-time piece,” explained Earls. “’All the other element of political participation, including working on campaigns, running for office yourself, engaging in all the activities that hold your elected-officials accountable, when you have less financial resources, you have less ability to do all those things.”

Judicial public financing helped bring greater female representation to North Carolina’s courts until the legislature repealed the program in 2013.

But Earl said the state is fortunate to have some dedicated organizations that help train women how to run for elected office, something she said was ‘crucial’ to her own success in winning a seat on the state’s highest court.

Earl said another avenue to increasing female representation is by serving on the hundreds of boards and commissions across the state.

“Hopefully it will begin to create more of a pipeline for women to step up the plate and say ‘I have had a leadership role in this setting, and I am now ready to run for public office.'”

Bonus content: Before becoming the State Organizing Director for the NC Housing Coalition, Adrienne Spinner was a community volunteer who ran for public office in 2018. Even though she did not win that race, she has given a lot of thought to promoting equitable policies that uplift women and people of color. Spinner shared her thoughts this week on how to succeed in having more women serve in elected office.

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