The pandemic has been “devastating” for women, especially women of color, Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday in an interview with USA TODAY.
“I think that the pandemic has exposed the failures, the fractures, the fissures that have long existed in our society, and it has made them bigger and more obvious,” she said.
The yearlong pandemic has only magnified America’s gender inequalities, all while stifling the decades of progress women have made.
Women are leaving the workforce in alarming numbers. Female entrepreneurs find their shops shuttered or empty. Burdened with the brunt of child care responsibilities while children are learning from home, Black and Latina women in particular are falling deeper into poverty.
Harris characterizes the regression as a “national emergency.”
She said the country needs a commitment to universal paid sick leave and paid family leave, and “child care needs to be affordable and available.”
COVID-19 has resulted in the disappearance of 4.5 million child care slots across the country because of social distancing and lockdowns, according to The Center for American Progress.
“We have many places in the country, including our rural communities, that are experiencing what we call child care deserts. So even before the pandemic, child care was not available and it certainly was not affordable,” Harris said.
The latest stimulus bill, called the American Rescue Plan, provides $39 billion to the child care sector. Of that, $15 billion will expand funding for states to provide child care subsidies for low-income families with children 13 or younger; $24 billion will go to support child care providers and help them restart or maintain child care services.
In addition, the plan increased the child tax credit from $2,000 to $3,600 for children younger than age 6, and $3,000 for other children younger than 18. Children 17 and younger (the previous cut off was 16) will now be covered.
“Women should not have to be presented with false choices that say, ‘You either have a career or you raise your children.’ They should be able to do both,” Harris said.
Harris also has focused on supporting small business owners, meeting with many in her time in office.
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces role of representing American women
Staff Video, USA TODAY
“I’m working with Janet Yellen, our first woman Treasury secretary, on what we can do to support community banks and get more resources there to get greater access to capital for our small business owners with, again, a priority around women and minority-owned businesses,” she said.
Harris is a litany of firsts: the first woman, the first Black American and the first South Asian American to ascend to the vice presidency. In this barrier-breaking role as the nation’s second-highest elected official, she watches with a keen eye as the COVID-19 pandemic takes an unbearable toll on women.
She knows the expectations that she’ll be at the table representing American women with thoughtful conversation and pointed policy. It’s a role she embraces.
In her USA TODAY interview, Harris expressed deep empathy and concern for women trying to claw their way out of the abyss, often carrying family members on their backs.
When asked what message she would send to those women, Harris said she wanted to look directly into the camera. She wanted to speak to them about their resiliency, their strength, their ability to problem-solve.
“Know you are not alone,” Harris said. “Know that you are supported and know that your voice is strong. It’s strong, and don’t let any circumstance diminish that or take your power from you. You are powerful. … The measure of strength, in my opinion, is based not on who you beat down, it’s based on who you lift up. And I know you’re lifting up people every day.
“You are strong.”
The interview has been edited for length.
Nicole Carroll, USA TODAY editor in chief: At USA TODAY, throughout the year, we are going to be celebrating women. We’re going to be talking about extraordinary accomplishments, especially women who’ve been helping women. We know this pandemic has been particularly impactful on women, and that’s what we want to talk to you about today, the road ahead.
As you’ve written yourself, more than 2.5 million women have left the workforce, many have lost jobs in industries hurt by the pandemic, others have had to leave because of child care or caretaking. So 2020 was devastating, and we’d love to hear your vision for our country and for its women in 2021.
Vice President Kamala Harris: The pandemic has been devastating to so many families, to our economy, to our children, and in the midst of this profound crisis, and actually crises, I think there are so many heroes and angels who have been exposed for their courage, for the value and the importance of their work and for their courage to keep doing it even in the face of exposing themselves and their families to harm and, in particular, exposure to COVID.
I think of, in particular, how I was raised, and there are three women who had a profound impact on who I am today. And in the midst of the pandemic, I have realized and reflected on their work and how the importance of their work has been highlighted through the pandemic. So my first grade teacher, Mrs. Frances Wilson, attended my law school graduation. She was, like every teacher I’ve known, invested, dedicated, convinced me and all of her students that we could be and do anything.
I think about my second mother, so Ms. Shelton, who lived two doors down from us when I was growing up. My mother, working long days, and she worked weekends often, and my sister and I would walk down (to) Ms. Shelton’s house. And she was our second mother. She took care of us.
I think about people like Dr. Kizzy Corbett, the scientist who contributed to the discovery of the vaccine that I actually took and so many of us have taken, and what these scientists have done in terms of exposing not only the seriousness of this pandemic, but developing and creating the things that will save us and save lives. And my mother was a scientist. My mother had two goals in her life, to raise her two daughters and end breast cancer.
And she would actually take us to the lab with her often. And I watched how these scientists, they have this passion. It’s a deep passion to improve human life and condition and to see what is possible, unburdened by what has been to see what can be.
So those are some of the things that I’ve been thinking about during the course of the pandemic. And of course, all of the folks I’m talking about are women and it really highlights, I think, the work that women have historically done and the work that women are doing currently.
Suzette Hackney, USA TODAY national columnist: As we know, Black and brown women have borne the brunt of this crisis in health care jobs, care taking, et cetera. It’s just different for women of color. It’s more critical. It’s more devastating. What are the answers? How can we pay special attention to these folks?
Vice President Harris: I think that the pandemic has exposed the failures, the fractures, the fissures that have long existed in our society, and it has made them bigger and more obvious. We had racial disparities long before this pandemic struck. And when we talk specifically about Black women, take for example the fact that even before this pandemic, Black women were three to four times likely to suffer from maternal mortality, to die in childbirth than other women.
Let’s take, for example, what we have seen during the course of the pandemic, which is that Black folks are exponentially more likely to contract the virus and die from it because of long-standing disparities around the delivery of health care and health care accessibility.
And when we talk about Black women specifically, you can look at the front-line workers, those folks who, be it in child care or in health care, who throughout the pandemic have been going to work every day, often taking public transportation, exposing themselves during the course of getting to work much less at work, to the virus, but doing the work that has actually been about saving lives, but taking a much bigger toll in terms of the harm that they’ve experienced from not only exposure to the virus, but exposure to the inequities around pay, around paid family leave, around paid sick leave, around affordable child care. These are all issues that have disproportionately impacted Black women in the workforce.
Carroll: You brought up the issue of pay. And as we know, women, especially Black and Latina women, disproportionately hold low wage jobs. Some of that’s by choice, some of it’s discrimination, and some of it’s funneling women into these lower paid career tracks. What do you think it’s going to take to change this imbalance?
Vice President Harris: Well, to your point, I’m told the majority of minimum wage workers are women and women of color. And by the way, federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour and the math on that, that’s $15,000 a year. And we are talking about those same jobs disproportionately being jobs that do not give paid sick leave, paid family leave. Those are jobs that make child care unaffordable.
And so what do we need to do? We need to have a commitment to universal paid sick leave, paid family leave. This is part of what we’ve done in the American Rescue Plan, saying that child care needs to be affordable and available because we have many places in the country, including our rural communities, that are experiencing what we call child care deserts. So even before the pandemic, child care was not available and it certainly was not affordable.
We also need to value the dignity of work. And when we look at the jobs that women are performing, in particular in lower wage positions, these are the jobs that invariably are about caring for other human beings. And we, as a society, should value that. It’s an incredible gift that they give us as a society, but we have sadly diminished our recognition of its value and the reflection of our diminishing appreciation of its value is that we’re not paying people enough money to do the work that they’re doing.
Carroll: And just to follow up on that, and you mentioned this, but one of the main reasons women leave the workforce is child care. What should the federal government’s role be in child care?
Vice President Harris: Well, one of the things that the president and I had been advocating, actually for each of us, throughout our careers, is we need to have a national commitment to affordable child care. And in many cases, the reason for that is that people are paying almost more for child care than they’re paying for college tuition for their kids. That’s how expensive it is. And again, speaking from my personal experience … Oh, that every mother would have a Ms. Shelton in your life who lives two doors down who can help take care of your kids, but that’s not the reality for most folks. And they need to leave their kids in child care, which means they need to be able to afford it so they can go to work.
And often the situation is that child care is more expensive than their salary. So it’s both in terms of what we do to pay people their value, but also have a national commitment to affordable child care. We do that in the American Rescue Plan and there are billions of dollars that we have put into the child care system and also into what we need to do around extending, for example, at least during the course of the pandemic, everything from unemployment benefits to what we’re going to do in terms of extending benefits for the folks around the $1,400 checks.
Hackney: Since you’ve been in office since January, what have you learned about issues facing women? What has surprised you and what resources are there, bright spots, and where are the disparities?
Vice President Harris: Well, I’ve been focused on issues affecting women and girls my whole career. So while I’ve been in office, the things that I’ve known before have been reinforced, to be sure. For example, for the years that I was a prosecutor, I specialized in crimes against women and children. And we have seen during the course of the pandemic when women and children are isolated and alone in that way, that we are seeing higher incidents of abuse. And it does highlight the importance of having a social service structure, having a structure where we have the ability to have safe places for women and children to go so that they can be free of harm and live in safety.
These are the things that we’ve been working on for years, understanding that women should not have to be presented with false choices that say, “You either have a career or you raise your children.” They should be able to do both.
Carroll: You’ve been a major part of the American Rescue Plan. The president has said you’re the first one in the room and you’re the last one to leave the room at these meetings. So what does it mean? What impact does it have when women are front and center of recovery? Do the discussions or outcomes differ when women are at the table?
Vice President Harris: Well, not only first and last, but throughout the meeting in the room, participating. (laughing)
Carroll: Of course. Of course.
Vice President Harris: And helping to shape the discussion and to inform the decisions. And the president has been very generous in seeking my input and participation, so I have to say that about him. He really is really great that way and in many ways.
Look, one of the things that I’ve been focused on is what we need to do to support small business owners. And I’ve been meeting in particular with women small business owners. And again, the child care issue comes up, but also access to capital. I’m working with Janet Yellen, our first woman Treasury secretary, on what we can do to support community banks and get more resources there to get greater access to capital for our small business owners with, again, a priority around women and minority-owned businesses.
We want to make sure that there’s an equal opportunity for access to capital for them to not only start their business, but grow their business, so this has been one of the areas of focus.
Another area focused in, and so this is part of the discussions we have in those rooms, is what we need to do around acknowledging disparities. So what we’ve been talking about, racial disparities, gender disparities. There is actually a bill that I had when I was in the Senate around creating a racial disparities task force and that is incorporated in our American Rescue Plan and the work we are doing to track disparities in terms of how populations have been affected by COVID, by the pandemic, by what we’re doing or should be doing in terms of delivering resources to folks who need them.
Pay equity, (that’s a) big issue that we’ve been talking a lot about and with a need to address in a very serious way, I think women generally (make) 82 cents on the dollar (for men); Black women, 62 cents on the dollar; Native women, 57; Latinas, 54. So there’s the work we need to do there.
And also back to the point about the dignity of work, the work we need to do to fight for working women, to make sure they are receiving the wages and benefits they deserve for their work. I convened women labor leaders recently, who are everything from women who are working construction sites and building trades to the women who are teachers to the women who are front-line workers in the health care and services industry, home health care workers. And I brought those women leaders together to say let’s work together on supporting women who are in the workforce in every capacity to make sure they are receiving the dignity they deserve and the dignity (is) being reflected in their wages and their benefits.
Hackney: Yes, so many women are struggling right now. They’re stretched thin with child care, demanding jobs, public facing jobs. What would you like to tell them? We would like to hear from you. Leave America’s women with a message, please.
Vice President Harris: First of all, know you are not alone.
These have been difficult hard times, where you got to sit at your kitchen table after the kids have gone asleep, where you’re trying to figure out how to make ends meet, how to get through it all.
Know you are not alone. Know that you are supported and know that your voice is strong. It’s strong, and don’t let any circumstance diminish that or take your power from you. You are powerful. You are powerful.
And when we all stand together, when we all stand together, that’s when we are our best selves. And so let’s continue to know we are not alone. We are all in this together. And keep doing what you do, because you have an incredible amount of courage. You have an incredible amount of conviction. You are dedicated. And so know that that is the sign of strength.
The measure of strength in my opinion is based not on who you beat down, it’s based on who you lift up. And I know you’re lifting up people every day.
You are strong.