So I made this prediction that for lots of heterosexual couples, at least, there would be a return to the kind of breadwinner/homemaker divide—the 1950s model of what a husband and wife do—simply because men are much more likely to work full time and, in straight couples, more likely to be the higher earner. It makes sense on a couple level if you’re really worried about one of you [losing] your job. And obviously the effects for single parents, the majority of whom are women, are far, far worse. But it’s very obvious that having all of the support that was keeping women in the workforce—grandparents, extended family, and friends—having all of that taken away, as well as schools and child-care nurseries ... It’s just like being repeatedly punched in the face by a giant bear, effectively, for women in this crisis.
Maeve Higgins: The numbers are massive in America. 2.4 million women have exited the workforce since you wrote that piece, compared with less than 1.8 million men. Almost one million mothers have left the workforce, with Black mothers, Hispanic mothers, and single mothers among the hardest hit.
Lewis: And I think we’re going to see the results of this for years and years. One of the long-term effects will be pension and Social Security contributions. If you’re not working and paying into that system, it can really affect what money you have when you retire. One of the biggest predictors of poverty in older women is getting divorced—because they lose access to their husband’s pension, and they may have had to take a career break themselves.
Well, if far more people have had to take a career break or one has [had that] forced on them by being fired, that has effects for the rest of their lives. It’s not just about the fact you’re going to find it quite sketchy the next year or two as you struggle to make ends meet. It’s going to have an impact until you’re dead, essentially.
Hamblin: Is it worse than you had imagined?
Lewis: It’s a tough question to untangle, because different countries have had very different responses, both in terms of being able to contain coronavirus and the policy response. If your case rates go up to a certain amount, you have to close schools. Britain has been much more reluctant to close schools than America, but nonetheless, they are currently closed now for all except vulnerable children. The U.S. is in this particularly bad situation [in that] it has very little federally funded leave—the employment-rights situation is very low—and it’s got a pandemic that’s been raging absolutely out of control. America is probably one of the worst-hit sets in the world, really—more so than countries which are poorer than America but have managed their pandemics better.
Hamblin: [President Joe] Biden has a recovery plan with some proposals to help working families. What do you think would be most important? What’s possible, and what could be done in coming weeks and months to try to stem some of this damage?