The unemployment numbers for April just came out, and it ain’t a pretty picture. Many businesses severely curtailed operations or shut down altogether to try and limit the spread of the deadly coronavirus, resulting in catastrophic job losses. The Labor Department reported 20.5 million people were abruptly cut loose, wiping out a decade of employment gains in a single month. The U.S. unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, the highest level since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
But taking a closer look at exactly which Americans lost their jobs, we see one huge difference from the massive crisis of the Great Depression. This one has a predominantly female face. Women accounted for 55 percent of the jobs lost in April, raising their unemployment rate to 15 percent from 3.1 percent in February. By comparison, the unemployment rate for men was 13 percent.
It’s no surprise that women of color fared worse, with unemployment for black women hitting 16.4 percent and Hispanic women topping out at a whopping 20.2 percent. And according to an analysis by the National Women’s Law Center, women’s job losses are proportionately greater than those of men even in female-dominated fields such as education and health services.
Our government has stepped into a degree, with help for small businesses (though much of it was siphoned off by large corporations) and a start on income supports for laid-off workers. But while short-term fixes are crucial and more are badly needed, longer-term solutions are essential.
We must once more look back to the 1930s, when the newly elected President Roosevelt instituted the New Deal to pull Americans out of despair -- and just incidentally may have saved the country in the bargain.
In a time when there was no social safety net, one was created. There were many aspects to the New Deal, ranging from the Home Owners Loan Act to agricultural subsidies and new worker rights to unionize. There was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) when the government hired people to build public infrastructure like post offices, bridges, schools, highways, and parks.
But the most enduring and arguably the most important program in the New Deal was the creation of Social Security Act, which guaranteed pensions to millions of Americans, stipulated that the federal government would help care for dependent children and the disabled, and most crucially for the current situation, set up a system of unemployment insurance.
We need a new New Deal now. Some lawmakers, notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, are calling for sweeping programs to stem the tide of unemployment. She proposed a “Green New Deal” long before the corona crisis, but now says it’s more urgent than ever to guarantee a high-wage job to everyone who wants one and fight climate change at the same time. Ocasio-Cortez also calls for limits on rent increases, tuition-free public college, and Medicare for all. Whatever you want to call it, in this crisis the country needs a New Health Care Deal more than ever, since when most people lose their jobs they also lose their health insurance at the same time the Trump administration is in court trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. And despite President Obama’s “shovel ready projects” to combat the Great Recession of 2008, our infrastructure is still crumbling. So a massive rebuilding program (with guarantees for hiring women) is in order.
Will our leaders step up, as they did in the 1930s? Here’s a clue: On the day the April unemployment numbers came out, President Trump declared "Those jobs will all be back, and they'll be back very soon." But he failed to outline – or even hint at -- a plan for just how that will happen. With the glaring absence of a solid blueprint for boosting jobs, there’s not only no evidence that he’s right, there’s a strong chance things will get worse since the pandemic is not yet subsiding even as states open up.
In the face of magical thinking substituting for real plans from the White House, leaders in Congress need to put aside partisan bickering and take action now, with more short-term money and meaningful long-term fixes.
Let’s take a lesson from history. At the height of the Great Depression unemployment reached 25.5% before a new president was elected and took decisive action. Can we afford to wait that long?
A version of this post appeared in Ms. magazine online