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Op-Ed: Working Moms Like Me Are at the Coronavirus Breaking Point

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October 16, 2020 6 min read

This story originally appeared on Cheddar

Four weeks ago my daughter started in-person nursery school. A week later, she got a stuffy nose — typical toddler stuff — and because of new COVID health guidelines, she had to come home. 

I was anchoring Cheddar’s Opening Bell when her teacher texted me and my husband to pick her up early. As I read the message, I had to physically hold back tears. (Yes, it came as a surprise to me, too!) But it was at that point when I realized how much I needed a break; just a few hours of help in what’s been an exhausting and emotionally draining year. 

As a working mom, I am at my breaking point. 

We are seven months into this pandemic with no end in sight, no light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. If anything, there’s a feeling of impending doom; that it’s only a matter of time before cases go back up and nursery schools, daycare centers, and anything else that provides a minor reprieve will shut down again. 

There are simply not enough hours in the day to be a full-time worker, parent, and teacher. 

On a recent Need2Know podcast, my co-host Carlo Versano asked me how I’m doing — we always check in with each other before getting to the news — and instead of sugar coating it, I told him, and our listeners, the truth. This pandemic has been debilitating for me, and I would guess, plenty of other working parents, especially women.

I was raw and vulnerable and a bit nervous that I’d get backlash for venting when so many people have it worse than I do: I have a supportive husband, who stopped working altogether to take care of our daughter in the morning when I’m on-air (although I’m not sure how much longer we can afford to do this), just one child, and a job that lets me work from home when needed. 

Instead, the support has been overwhelming. I’ve received emails from Alaska, Idaho, and Canada, from women and men, telling me about how they’ve lost their job, or quit their job, or simply can’t do their job and also watch their kids who are now remote learning. One woman sent me an inspirational quote. Another, a motivational TikTok video

One man told me that for the first time in his life he is suffering from severe anxiety and had to take a leave of absence from work. Another woman said she’s had to turn down incredible professional opportunities — that she’s worked so hard for — and fears that they’ll never come back around.

These are the stories behind the statistics. And unfortunately, they’re all too common. 

After years of professional gains, working women are being forced to leave the labor force in droves, mostly because of a lack of childcare during the pandemic and because most of the child-related responsibilities still fall on them. An analysis from the National Women’s Law Center found that 860,000 women — the population of Indianapolis — have left the workforce, just in the month of September. 

According to a different study from McKinsey and Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org, a quarter of working women are now considering scaling back their career ambitions or leaving the workforce entirely because of stresses related to the pandemic. It also found Black women are having a worse experience and receiving less support. 

Another key takeaway: The COVID-19 crisis could erase all the gains women have made in management and senior leadership since McKinsey and LeanIn.org began their study together in 2015. 

Lauren Brody, founder of The Fifth Trimester, which helps companies and organizations do a better job of supporting parents, said the exhaustion is universal. “But more than exhausting, it’s scary, because we fear the progress that we’ve made, personally and as a larger culture, could slip away if we don’t actively push back to protect our income and our status.” 

I feel this sentiment myself. I’ve always been career-driven. I’ve worked overnight shifts, late nights, weekends, and early mornings (still do). I’ve moved from New York City to a small town in Michigan for my first on-air job, and eventually worked my way up to the network level at CBS News, which meant a 2 am in-time at the New York Stock Exchange. During all that, I had a side-hustle: I co-founded, wrote — and eventually sold —  a successful daily email newsletter, Need2Know. And, oh yeah, I got married and had a daughter. 

But I was never truly exhausted and overwhelmed — at least not in this long-term sense — until now. We’re in the middle of a public health crisis and the most exciting and important election I can remember. During any other point in my professional life, I’d be volunteering for extra assignments and late-night debate coverage, posting additional reports on social media and online. Instead, it’s taking all the energy I can muster to simply do my baseline job.

So how will this affect my career in the long term? I’m not really sure, but I can’t imagine it will help. 

I mentioned this to Brody. She says it’s important to remember that right now doing the baseline IS extra: “All of our work has value, whether it’s paid work or unpaid housework/childcare. If you get to the end of the day having done even *most* of those two jobs, you’re already overachieving. Try to remember that many of us over-deliver and this may be time for a reset in order to prioritize long-term goals (and mental health) over short-term perfection.”

It is a 24-hour, 7-days a week slugfest. Work. Parent. Repeat. Work. Parent. Repeat. Any extra minutes that would formerly be spent networking or thinking about career advancement have been replaced by sleep. Or worry. Or maybe Netflix and wine, if we’re lucky.

I’ve hesitated to say this out loud because I worry it sounds like a whiny trail of complaints. And from the looks of my Instagram feed, filled with photos of shiny, happy people pumpkin-picking and enjoying life, it’s felt like perhaps I’m the only one struggling. But the reaction I’ve gotten from just admitting that this is hard and that I worry about my own career trajectory and that of so many other women who’ve busted their butts to get where they are, shows that I’m not alone here. It helped me to hear from others going through it, so maybe it will help someone else to hear from me.

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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