Paying more and earning less: How inflation disproportionately hurts women

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There’s one group of people that’s being disproportionality hurt by high inflation: women.

The relentless rise in prices hurts women two-fold. First, a jump in child care prices has started to pressure women out of the workforce. Child care costs in the U.S. have outpaced wage growth in recent years, with day care and preschool prices jumping 5.7% year over year in February 2023 and 25% over the last decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Child care inflation, which has increased 214% from 1990 to 2022, has outpaced average family income gains, which have risen 143%. 

At the same time, sectors with the highest share of female workers are seeing inflation outpace wage increases. The healthcare and education sectors, of which 75% of workers are women, had the second-to-lowest increase in nominal wages in 2022. 

The Ellevest Women’s Financial Health Index, which examines indicators such as employment rates, inflation, reproductive autonomy and the pay gap, has found recent progress to be a mixed bag. While the index has slightly risen from its lowest levels in November 2022 — which was lower than at any point during the pandemic — ongoing inflation is casting an overhang on further improvements. Last year’s sharp drop in women’s financial health aligned with inflation levels reaching double digits.

“While women are paying more, they also earn less,” according to Dimple Gosai, Bank of America’s head of U.S. ESG strategy. “The pandemic made the child care crisis undeniably worse, and inflationary pressures are adding fuel to the fire. Surprisingly, over 50% of parents spend over 20% of their income on child care in the US.” Gosai added that rising child care costs can both keep and push women out of the workforce, undoing progress made in recent years to close the gender parity. 

“Caregiving responsibilities are preventing more women from getting into, remaining, and progressing in the labor force. This is more the norm than the exception,” said Gosai. “The pandemic worsened this gap, with women taking on more of the additional child care burden than men.”

The supply crunch in the child care industry stems from low worker retention due to low wages, an issue that predates the Covid pandemic. Child care providers are now faced with a dilemma of offering competitive wages to their workers as well as affordable prices to families and caregivers. 

“We have seen a negative shock to the supply of child care providers in this recovery, and that could make this problem even worse going forward, but child care costs are more systemic than other shorter-term inflation pressures we’ve seen. Absent public investment, there’s just not much margin to give in this market, and that’s one reason the Treasury department found child care is a failed market,” said Mike Madowitz, director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

It’s not just women with children who are disproportionately affected by inflation. Women and minorities are underrepresented in higher-wage industries, such as technology or finance, that are more insulated from inflation pressures, Gosai noted. The researcher deemed the phenomenon as “occupational segregation.”

Furthermore, inflation has made women’s shopping carts become more expensive at a faster rate — exacerbating the problem of the “pink tax,” or the cost premium on goods and services market toward women compared to similar products for men. 

Long-term implications

The negative impact of rising prices on women is not just short-term but has long-term implications for their financial well-being. The Bank of America Institute found in January that women’s 401(k) balances are just two-thirds that of men.

“Because of both [the] COVID and inflation crisis, women are much more likely to have broken into their retirement savings,” said Ariane Hegewisch, program director of employment and earnings at The Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

“Debt is much higher, [and] rental costs have gone up. So, there’s now an even bigger hole in retirement or in wealth or any kind of security right the financial security that [women] may have, and that needs to be rebuilt.” 

The Washington Center’s Madowitz said that the Federal Reserve’s aggressive interest rate hikes in its fight against inflation could be “the opposite of helpful in improving women’s economic health and opportunity” in the near-term. The Fed has been raising rates since last year, when the overnight was set at zero. Currently, it sits in a range between 4.75% and 5%.

Because of this, some are worried that the process of cooling down the economy will have an outsized impact on women, particularly women of color.

“If the FOMC raises interest rates too high in an effort to reach its 2% inflation target faster, that would hurt worker demand, and harm those already facing more labor market barriers — namely, women workers and workers of color,” Madowitz noted.

Hegewisch also pointed out that higher rates could lead to higher unemployment, which would hurt women disproportionately.

“Unemployment is always higher for women of color, and men of color, than it is for others,” noted Hegewisch. “Unemployment is double for black women compared to white women and almost as much for Latinos. And so, if it doubles, it goes [up] at a much higher rate for black women than it does for white women.”

One solution that may alleviate the pressures of inflation on gender parity is if companies invest more in their employees’ well-being, Bank of America’s Gosai said. She named enhanced reproductive health care benefits, subsidized child care and flexible work arrangements as ways corporations can offset the pressures of higher costs on women. 

What can be done?

A critical step to rectifying some of the damage of high prices on women’s economic health and opportunity may also be passing more comprehensive social infrastructure legislation. Madowitz said policies such as President Joe Biden’s failed Build Back Better Act could not only help women’s economic prospects, but also prevent inflation from reaching such high levels in the future. 

“A critical step to help curb inflation in the long-term and more effectively prevent it from running so high in the future is passing comprehensive social infrastructure legislation, like we almost had in the Build Back Better Act,” said Madowtiz.

“Those investments in child care, eldercare and healthcare, public education, and income support programs would tackle consistently rising prices by increasing labor supply and women’s earnings, as well as help alleviate a good chunk of the pressure that keeps women out of the labor force and limits their upward mobility,” he said.

Rising prices is one portion of the economic barriers that women face — meaning that even after inflation cools, further initiatives must be taken to ensure equal opportunities. 

“This is an issue that’s ingrained. It’s a bigger issue and it touches so many different sectors and so many different geographies. That it isn’t something that’s just simply eradicated by inflation,” said Gosai. “Women earn 82 cents for every $1 that a man earns. That’s something that doesn’t change [even]  if inflation goes down tomorrow. It’s something that takes a long time to get fixed. … It’s a vicious cycle. 

“You need more women that are financially independent and empowered to get educated, to enter the job force, and have those opportunities so they could have an equal footing and they can compete equally.”

— CNBC’s Gabe Cortes contributed reporting

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