A universal basic income. Special emergency funds for marginalized groups, including undocumented immigrant women, domestic workers, women with disabilities and sex-trafficking survivors. Waived co-payments for covid-19 tests and treatment, including for incarcerated women. A 20 percent pro rata share of the covid-19 response funds the express recovery needs of the indigenous population. A $24.80/hour minimum wage for single mothers. Free, publicly-funded child care for all essential workers.
None of these proposals have come from the federal government. These proposals instead come out of Hawaii, the first state to propose a what it’s calling a “feminist economic recovery plan.” Rather than restoring the economy to the old normal, the state is looking to seize the opportunity “to build a system that is capable of delivering gender equality.”
The plan, produced by the state’s Commission on the Status of Women, is designed for “deep cultural change” by explicitly incorporating the unique needs of indigenous and immigrant women, caregivers, elderly women, femme-identifying and non-binary people, incarcerated women, unsheltered women, domestic abuse and sex trafficking survivors, and women with disabilities.
We spoke with Khara Jabola-Carolus, the commission’s executive director, to explore the plan’s vision for a state with complex identities and challenges, and how the plan can be adapted — and adopted — across the United States.
Frances Nguyen: At the end of last month, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), who is leading the response in the nation’s epicenter of the pandemic, called the novel coronavirus “the great equalizer.” Do you agree?
KJC: The death count has determined that is a lie. The virus itself and collateral damage hit certain groups harder than others: Black, Native, and immigrant communities were more defenseless to covid-19 because they couldn’t afford to be healthy in America to begin with.
Even the fact that the virus is more deadly for men is tied to sexism, a form of inequality. Mortality is always higher for men because self care and health-seeking are seen as things that women do; men often don’t want to be associated with women-type behaviors. It’s well documented that men often don’t take care of their health for these cultural reasons. Meanwhile the impacts of covid-19 outside of the virus itself are more devastating to women, for cultural reasons as well as systemic sexism.
FN: The plan calls out a disparity in the framing of an economic “shutdown” because there’s a lot of unseen — and unpaid — labor that is forcing many to work overtime.
KJC: It’s like “Stranger Things”: There’s the economy we see, and then there’s all this other activity that co-exists and props it up — that’s where women live. This “Upside Down” of women’s work is in overdrive, not slowdown.
Normally, this “women’s work” seems nonessential, but during covid-19, it’s [society’s] only defense from total collapse. If we want a sustainable recovery, we need to formally revalue this work, entice men to do it, and integrate our economy around it.
FN: In many ways, it makes perfect sense that Hawaii would be the state to introduce the first recovery plan of this kind, given its unique, distinctive population, need and character: It has an indigenous identity, a large immigrant population, a large elderly population and a high number of multigenerational households. It also has the highest cost of living of any state, and two-thirds of Hawaii residents were already struggling financially before the pandemic hit; now, it has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
KJC: Yes. Firstly, women are caregiving for a lot more family members here — Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Micronesians have two to three times the amount of family members per household.
Hawaii is also unique because it has some of the highest costs for child care and elder care, and the largest shortage of care services in the U.S., so it makes sense that women would point out the need for social care infrastructure as part of rebuilding the economy.
This crisis is ripping the mask off that normally hides the exploitation of women’s care.
FN: What would an appropriate social care infrastructure look like?
KJC: It would have federal and state programs for caregiving, and health care jobs that offer family wages and economic independence — wages and benefits that a single mom could live well on. Care job creation for child care, elder care, and maternal care systems would also need to be incredibly intentional about recruiting men so that the work is no longer gendered. This can’t be about subsidizing women to remain in their role.
Also a lot of caregiving is unexpected or not safe for a stranger to be doing — a care infrastructure would mandate recognition of this and the arduous, endless labor of homemaking by requiring things like one-year minimum paid parental and family leave. This would be paid family leave with built-in perks if both parents participate. These are just the basics, but it has to be a suite of efforts aimed at the goal of ending a segregated economy that keeps women so poor and unhappy.
And a care economy will become even more important with automation and companies racing toward labor reduction, because you can’t automate or outsource care.
FN: The plan specifically calls out the importance of midwifery. Why is that?
KJC: I fear that one of the aftershocks of covid-19 will be increased maternal mortality. Even before the pandemic, women of color risked ugly racism in hospitals, which impacted their safety. A third of black women report that they have been discriminated against by hospital staff. As a result, they die at almost three times the rate of white mothers, and the U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate in the developed world.
Right now, hospitals are more burdened and unsafe than ever. Infants are at high risk for serious infection. Covid-19 limits access to hospitals because it’s too risky for women to travel and hospitals are hot zones for infection. This is dangerous to rural women and women who aren’t ideal candidates for home birth. We know for a fact that they are reaching out to the small number of midwives available in Hawaii. This needs to be a wake-up call that we need an actual maternal health system that integrates midwifery.
FN: The plan also prioritizes elder care, which is one of a few priorities that makes it an outlier among recovery propositions.
KJC: Elders are the collective wealth of our community. They are also majority women, and majority impoverished. Women of older generations were systematically denied the opportunity to build a nest egg because they were forced into low-paid work, homemaking and dependency on their husbands.
Older women cannot take care of themselves even if they wanted to. In a decade, one-third of Hawaii will be elderly people. There is no plan to care for them, other than to dump the work on their daughters. We need an eldercare infrastructure to care for every senior, not just the wealthy.
FN: What most informed the creation of this plan?
KJC: I have not seen any state or nation propose a feminist economic recovery, a recovery that explicitly centers women or attempts to counteract patriarchy. Even proposals from left movements in the U.S. are missing this. They are bold on race and class, but gender is taken for granted. People don’t seem to understand the fundamental role of patriarchy, and how to tie gender in with race and class. So, I turned to the people with real power — women organizing in our communities who are active inside and outside government.
This plan provides a blueprint.
FN: How do you see this plan adapting to states in the mainland? What are the guiding principles, so to speak?
KJC: I think other states can easily replicate Hawaii’s process and plan, especially because we structured the report around four main questions that all states will be asking: How should your state find money to deal with the hole it’s in? How can we stimulate jobs? What should we spend funding on? And what would a better, more resilient economy look like?
We have the tools now — like Google Docs and Zoom — that enable a democratic process in real time, but we need to create onramps for women with disabilities. Build your feminist army and go beyond advocates and legislators. Involve women who are connected to and well-versed in the struggles of women living on the edge in your community. Look for women economists and economists critical of neoliberalism. Most of all, think big picture and be aspirational.