What Biden’s State of the Union Means for Women

We are the wealthiest nation, and the rich have more than ever. We can afford to share this prosperity in support of those who have been left behind for far too long: women, especially Black and brown women.

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President Biden gives his 2022 State of the Union Address on March 1. (Twitter)

In his State of the Union address last week, President Biden called for a range of policies that would create a new story for families across the United States: raising the minimum wage, extending the child tax credit, cutting the cost of child care and early education, addressing the gender pay gap, instituting paid leave, reducing the costs of prescription drugs, protecting abortion access (although the word “abortion” was not uttered) and advancing maternal health.

The speech was far from perfect. And yet it still felt significant to see the president standing in front of two women—one of them a Black woman vice president—acknowledging how much work we need to do to support women and families.

Biden’s demands to create a more equitable economy for women, which reflect decades of activism and leadership on the part of racial and gender justice advocates, aren’t simply bullet points on a progressive wish list. They aren’t “nice-to-haves.” They are fundamental building blocks of an economy and society that values women and families, which explains why the United States doesn’t have them.

But we need them—all of them—now more than ever before.

The immediate and short-term impacts of the pandemic and our national failure on these policy fronts—particularly on paid leave and affordable childcare—is abundantly clear. Millions of women were pushed out of the labor market and Black and Latina women are returning at a much lower rate than white women. These women are also more likely to experience housing insecurity and have taken on additional debt over the course of the last two years. Pre-existing gender and racial wealth gaps, and the resulting lack of financial cushion for Black and brown women made them especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s economic fallout. The collision of historical and present-day economic crises with the pandemic will likely impact women for their entire working lives, and has the potential to have multigenerational effects.

The pandemic’s economic impacts have been just the tip of the iceberg for Black and brown women and their families. The CDC recently reported that U.S. maternal deaths—already considerably higher than any other OECD country—increased during the pandemic. Black women represented one-in-three maternal deaths despite the fact they only make up 13 percent of the population. Mortality rates among Hispanic women, which have traditionally been lower than for white women, also increased markedly. This recent data reflects other research that has shown that Black and Latinx Americans are twice as likely to die from COVID-19 and are at one and a half times greater risk of infection than white Americans.

In December of 2021, the journal Pediatrics reported that Black children accounted for more than one-in-four children who lost their primary caregiver during the first 15 months of the pandemic, and Latinx children accounted for more than one-in-three of those children. These rates are significantly higher than for the general population.

These statistics represent lives lost. Legacies lost. Laughter lost. Love lost. So. Much. Loss. In many cases, this loss is compounded by pre-existing inequities that were already causing intergenerational trauma.

These losses are the result of a complex web of system failures: economic systems, health systems, social systems. These outcomes are tragically not a surprise. These are systems that were designed to fail many of us. Systems built on a foundation of racism and sexism that have, as a result, produced and exacerbated deep racial and gender inequities. Nothing about this was inevitable. Our systems are the result of choices that were made by policymakers, informed by who they have historically valued and deemed as deserving. Deserving of public investment, of being heard and seen, of trust, and of opportunities to thrive.

We could, quite simply, choose to do better. It could be that easy. But it never is, is it?

Nearly all of the proposals Biden mentioned in his speech were roundly rebuffed by every single Republican along with Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who were more than happy to kill the President’s Build Back Better agenda earlier this year.

Women, and particularly Black and brown women, have never been valued or viewed as deserving enough for our leaders to create policies that would ensure we can survive, let alone thrive. The pandemic—and its incalculable losses—are constant reminders of this ugly truth.

The policies Biden called out in his address last week could be the start of a different story for women and families. We are the wealthiest nation in the world, at a time when the rich have more than ever. We can afford to share this prosperity in support of those who have been left behind for far too long: women, especially Black and brown women.

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About

Andrea Flynn is the senior director at the Insight Center, where she researches and writes about race, gender, health and economic policy.