Carlene Balderrama was a 53-year-old working mother living in Boston when, on July 22, she faxed a letter to the company holding her mortgage. The letter read, in part, "By the time you foreclose on my home, I'll be dead." Balderrama, who knew that bank foreclosure was imminent, also instructed her husband in her suicide note to "take the life insurance money and pay for the house." According to the New York-based leftist organization, Workers World, "her body was still inside her home while people gathered outside to attend the foreclosure auction."
America's financial crisis will hit women of every socio-economic group first and hardest, experts say. Women, who have elected to remain home while their children are young, will be more dependent than ever on their husbands' jobs remaining viable. Working women, many of whom are just beginning to access some labor markets, may find themselves "last hired, first fired" as layoffs and downsizing take effect. Women business owners will soon realize that loans and lines of credit are harder to secure. As a result they may not be able to meet payrolls or buy goods and services needed to continue operating. Older women contemplating retirement may have to work several more years, and if they are already retired, they may find it necessary to seek re-employment in downsizing markets.
"Women are disadvantaged from the start point," says Debbie Frett, CEO of Business and Professional Women, USA. "When the economy is going well asset management, credit lines, pay parity, collective bargaining, paid family leave, and more are women's issues, but when it's not going so well, things get a lot worse for women. That's why this year women's vote is critical. The current crisis represents a systemic problem that affects women's entire lives. Going forward we must make sure we deal with those systemic issues with an understanding of working women, women business owners, and women consumers."
Vicky Lovell, director of employment and work-life programmes at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, agrees. "It's bad for women," she says. "Working women don't have as much money to lose as men do, so a decline in the value of their assets is critical. Their financial cushion is so much smaller. Women heads of households are on the brink of financial disaster. Their savings or ability to borrow money will be severely impacted by this crisis and that in turn impacts their quality of life. We're not talking frills here. We're talking putting food on the table."
For women working minimum wage or in low-level jobs, the situation is deeply worrisome. Poverty is high among women in the U.S. as it is everywhere, but it's a particular problem for women of color, older women and single mothers. Among other things women have been disproportionately affected by predatory lending schemes resulting in their securing high-priced "sub-prime" loans which, ultimately, they can't afford.
"Even at the beginning of the economic downturn, more women than men, and more African Americans and Latinos than whites, were caught in the sub-prime mortgage trap," says Sara Gould, president and CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women. "Now that the crisis has escalated, we must expect that the negative repercussions for women - especially women of color - will escalate as well."
"Women in the U.S. are playing with the economic deck stacked against them," Gould continues. "Taking into account longstanding pay inequities, insidious barriers to employment, record levels of inflation and ever-increasing childcare expenses, women and their families are struggling to keep up and get by. For women who confront the additional barriers of race and class, the obstacles are much greater and the economic straits even worse."
Long before this recent upheaval in America's financial markets women faced challenges to their economic security. According to the Ms. Foundation, the gender-wage gap has not improved since 2001, with women still being paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man. Women comprise the majority of low-wage workers, accounting for 68 per cent of minimum-wage and below-minimum-wage workers in 2007. The poverty rate for single female-headed households remains higher than any other demographic group. During economic turndowns, women are particularly at risk because they are more likely than men to face longer periods without regular income.
In the financial sector itself, virtually all job losses to date have been among women, who tend to work in either front end or back room positions. In the last two years, more than 200,000 women have left jobs in the financial sector of the economy while the number of men employed in that sector has remained stable, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Another telling statistic: Even in good times, only 1.5 per cent of federal procurement contracts are awarded to women business owners. This is likely to fall as projects shrink.
As one New York financial analyst put it, "When the economy gets a cold, women get pneumonia."
President George W. Bush's emergency $700 billion rescue package is now written into law. But women's advocates believe that despite the bail out, the situation continues to be less than promising for consumers, especially if they are women.