In-Depth

COVID-19 Has Working Class Moms At A Breaking Point

Half of all U.S. moms, including three fourths of black women, are breadwinners for their families. While they try to provide, many are facing low wages or unemployment, single motherhood, no childcare and no sick leave.

Sunny holds her son, Doce, in the hospital. He suffers from critical respiratory issues.

Sunny, 37, is well-acquainted with adversity: Parental abuse. Drug addiction. Sexual assault. 

“At age 7 I was already drinking,” Sunny said. “At age 12 I was already using drugs.” 

She’s past that now. An Afro-Latina gay single mother, Sunny now lives in Houston’s 3rd Ward with her 5-year-old son, Doce Anjo Palacios. He’s the person she said inspired her to get clean. 

“I wanted to break that generational curse and start my own story with my little boy,” she said. 

But Sunny, who asked to go by her first name, feels like she could lose all she’s fought for. She can’t work right now because of the virus. She’s a freelance HVAC technician and does home repairs. 

Sunny takes a selfie with her son Doce.

“I can’t control the money coming in. I can’t go out there and work hard and put myself out there,” she said.

She said she’s been calling the unemployment office for weeks, without any luck. 

She’s not sure how she’s going to pay rent, or if she’ll be able to finish her last year of school to become a sheet metal mechanic. For now she’s trying to teach her son, whose daycare closed, feed him and keep a roof over their heads. She said she’s so scared, it’s hard not to cry. 

“My whole life has been a nightmare,” Sunny said, in tears. “My whole childhood. I don’t want that to happen to my kid. I don’t want my son to go through anything I had to go through, and I try to protect him from this world, but this world is breaking those barriers.”

She also has to protect her son from getting the Coronavirus. He’s had multiple surgeries due to life-threatening respiratory problems. 

“I don’t know if my son will be strong enough,” she said.  

COVID-19 disproportionately impacts working moms

Many mothers are in similar predicaments. Half of U.S. moms are breadwinners for their families, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. For black women it’s even higher: three quarters.

“If 74% of African American women are breadwinners and they comprise of the industries that are low wages and that are now deemed as either essential workers or are now shut down…we’re talking about a significant impact,” said Rice University researcher Quianta Moore, who studies health in communities like Third Ward. 

Her new research looks at how COVID-19 will disproportionately impact working class mothers and their kids.

She said while many moms can’t find work, others are deemed essential working as cashiers, nurses, janitors and other jobs.

“Women comprise of the largest portion of the labor market in the industries that we are saying are essential workers,” Moore said. A third of jobs held by women has been deemed essential, according to a New York Times report.

Moore said many of these women will go to their essential jobs, risking illness, without paid sick leave. 

In many Texas cities, like Houston, employers are not required by law to provide sick leave to their workers. In fact, Houston is the largest city in the country without a paid sick leave policy

What’s more, in Texas, a quarter of women of reproductive age don’t have health insurance. And working moms are dealing with kids at home since many schools and day care providers are closed. 

Low wages and single motherhood 

And that doesn’t account for the fact that women are more likely than men work in low-wage jobs.

In Texas, 20% of working women have low-wage jobs, compared to just 8% of men, according to the National Women’s Law Center. 

“We have a population that already was vulnerable because they were low-income, there’s also income gaps,” Moore said. “Women not only comprise these lower-wage industries, but also make less than men even for the same industry.” 

Women are also more likely to be raising their kids as single parents. 

Pew Research Center found 21% of American children live with a single mom, while only 4% of kids live with a single dad.

Rates of single motherhood increase in families of color — 47% of black children live with a single mother. 

Moore said all of these different stressors can lead moms to feel increased anxiety and depression, which is likely to impact the health outcomes of their children. 

“Parental perceptions of their children change under extreme parental stress, which then leads to increased risk for child abuse and maltreatment,” Moore said. 

Instances of child abuse, especially brain injuries, increase during natural disasters, said Moore, who believes similar behaviors will be repeated during COVID-19.

That’s why Moore said the federal government should create policies specifically designed to relieve some of that stress. 

But for now, she said the new legislation created to help working moms is likely to leave out the women who need it most

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