Women and Women-headed Households in the Bay Area Continue to Experience the Lingering Effects of the Pandemic

January 29, 2024

Our analysis of census data reveals a slow and uneven recovery for women and women-headed households.

By Simone Robbennolt

It has been four years since the start of the pandemic, yet many Bay Area households continue to struggle to recover from the toll of the pandemic. The recovery has been particularly slow or nonexistent for women and women-headed households. The dwindling disbursement of pandemic-era cash and food supports, alongside declining attention to the pandemic’s ongoing impact, has translated to a shrinking social safety net to support an equitable recovery.

The Bay Area Equity Atlas has been tracking the nine-county region’s progress toward an inclusive and equitable recovery through the Bay Area Recovery Tracker — a regularly updated dashboard that features longitudinal data on economic security and prosperity, housing justice, and healthy communities of opportunity. This analysis provides a closer look at how women and women-headed households are faring in the region.

Note: Respondents to the Census Household Pulse Survey are asked to share how they currently identify their sex: either “male” or “female.” As a result, the dataset we used for this analysis uses these categories. However, in this analysis, we use “women” to refer to all those who’ve self-identified as women.

Our key findings include the following:

  • Since the end of 2022, women in the Bay Area have increasingly been unable to cover their households' basic expenses, such as rent or mortgage, car payments, and medical expenses. Nearly one in three women reported that it was somewhat or very difficult to pay for their usual expenses, compared to just over one in four adults regionwide.
  • Bay Area households headed by women are currently almost twice as likely to report sometimes or often not getting enough to eat than those headed by men.
  • Over one in five women-headed households in the region have childcare responsibilities that affect their households’ ability to work. This is compared to 13 percent of male-headed households and 17 percent of all households regionwide.

Data and Methods

The Bay Area Recovery Tracker draws from a mix of data sources — prioritizing regularly updated data sources when possible — to provide a real-time snapshot of how communities across the region are faring during this recovery period.

The Census Household Pulse Survey, covering the period between the middle of August 2020 and the beginning of October 2023, informs our findings for these indicators.

The dashboard relies on timely, nationally representative datasets. For several indicators on the dashboard, we combine all non-white groups into an overarching “people of color” category, which allows us to provide a statistically reliable estimate. We highlight the various geographies available throughout the dashboard and provide data at the most localized level when possible.

For more details on our data and methods, visit bayareaequityatlas.org/recovery-tracker/data.

Nearly one in three women are still struggling to cover usual expenses across the region.

Across the country, women have experienced growing economic uncertainty. According to recent research from the National Women’s Law Center, the official poverty rate of women remained around 12 percent between 2021 and 2022. However, this research also shows that the supplemental poverty measure, which takes into account federal and state benefits, for women sharply increased from 8.7 percent to 13 percent over the same period.This stark increase can be attributed to the end of pandemic-era cash and benefits coupled with the rising cost of living.

These same trends have held in the Bay Area. As of October 2023, 27 percent of all adults in the region reported that it was somewhat or very difficult to pay for usual expenses, such as rent or mortgage, car payments, and medical expenses. However, the gap between men and women has expanded to 9 percentage points over the past year. Thirty-two percent of women reported difficulty, an increase of 5 percentage points from October 2022 to October 2023. Over this same period, the share of men reporting difficulty declined by 5 percentage points to 23 percent.

Food insufficiency rates continue to increase, with high rates among women-headed households.

Food insufficiency in the region, defined as households that reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, hovered between 5 percent and 10 percent of households from the summer of 2020 to the end of 2023. Since October 2022, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of women-headed households that are food-insufficient. Nearly one in eight (12 percent) women-headed households are food-insufficient, compared to one in 14 (7 percent) male-headed households. This is even higher for women-headed households with children, where one in six (16 percent) households sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.

The steady increase in food insufficiency for women-headed households is likely due to a combination of factors, including the expiration of expanded food assistance programs that supported communities during the height of the pandemic, the rising cost of food, as well as the long-standing gap in earnings between men and women. For example, CalFresh emergency allotments (the state’s version of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) expired in April 2023. This temporary expansion raised the benefit minimum to $95 a month and played an essential role in alleviating poverty and food hardship for individuals and families across the state. At the same time, family budgets have been hard hit by the rising price of food, which has increased by 24 percent nationwide since January 2022. In addition to rising food costs, women consistently earn less than men — a workforce inequity that long preceded the pandemic. The median earnings for all men working in the nine-county region in 2020 was $82,100, compared to $66,800 for women who worked.

Food insufficiency rates are especially prevalent for low-income women-headed households, where nearly three in 10 (29 percent) are experiencing food insufficiency, compared to one in 10 (10 percent) Bay Area households overall.2

One in five women-headed households continue to have their ability to work hindered by childcare responsibilities.

At the start of the pandemic, families across the Bay Area scrambled to fill in the gaps in childcare support after most childcare centers and schools closed. Regionally, childcare has affected households' ability to work ranging from 22 percent at the start of data collection in April 2021 and peaking in March 2022 when 33 percent of households were unable to work due to childcare constraints. Women, specifically women of color, took on an outsized share of childcare and household responsibilities. As of October 2023, 21 percent of women-headed households reported childcare responsibilities affecting their households’ ability to work, compared to 13 percent of male-headed households and 17 percent of all households regionwide. Households cited a range of reasons, including unavailable or unaffordable childcare and concerns about their child’s safety. During the pandemic, lower-income women with children exited the labor market at higher rates due to the closure of inexpensive or free childcare options, such as state-funded Pre-K or Head Start programs, and due to an increased likelihood of working in non-remote jobs. This is evident in the Bay Area where the average cost of care in the region hovers just under $3,000 a month for a household with two adults, one preschool-aged child, and one school-aged child.


Many women and women-headed households in the Bay Area continue to experience the lingering effects of the pandemic. Yet the challenges of food insufficiency, inadequate wages, and the high cost of childcare reflect larger inequities that existed long before the pandemic. Both immediate and longer-term investments and reforms are needed to pave the way for a more equitable future in the region:

  • Leverage the region’s remaining $673 million in state and local fiscal recovery funds to support the needs of women-headed households. Throughout the Bay Area, local governments have invested their share of relief funds in innovative strategies aimed at reducing food insufficiency and expanding affordable childcare options. These resources, such as the $6.45 million San Mateo has invested in local food banks and food distribution systems and the $1 million that Daly City has allocated to build an early learning center for 35 infants and toddlers, provide local governments with resources to implement programs and services that can provide immediate relief.
  • Implement policies and investments that increase access to affordable, high-quality childcare. Addressing childcare affordability, access, and quality requires a mix of strategies and a multi-sector approach to increase the availability of care; large-scale investments to support the workforce, providers, and families; and public and workplace policies that support working families.
  • Address the gender wage gap. Developing targeted policies and investments to close wage gaps, increase access to good jobs, and raise the floor on job quality would disproportionately support working women due to their overrepresentation in low-wage jobs.
  • Institutionalize policies that were proven to be effective during the pandemic. Policies and programs that bolstered social safety, such as emergency food assistance, expanded eligibility for unemployment benefits, and the expanded federal Child Tax Credit (CTC), offer a roadmap for ways to provide immediate and impactful relief. For example, the CTC is estimated to have reduced the child poverty rate from 9.7 percent to 5.2 percent, and 3 million fewer children nationwide would have been in poverty if the CTC expansions had been renewed in 2022.

The supplemental poverty measure (SPM) calculates the poverty level based on cash resources and noncash benefits by taking the sum of them and subtracting necessary expenses, such as child care and medical expenses. For more information on the SPM, visit https://www.census.gov/newsroom/blogs/random-samplings/2018/09/what_is_the_suppleme.html#:~:text=The%20supplemental%20poverty%20measure%20uses,as%20taxes%20and%20medical%20expenses

Food insufficiency rates for low-income households headed by men are not available due to a small sample size.