WEST ALLIS, Wisconsin — Lexie Higgins has done the math, and it doesn’t work.
Higgins lost her job in entertainment in the middle of March, the same week that a statewide stay-at-home order shut down her entire industry along with a huge swath of the state’s economy. For seven months now, she has been at home caring for her two young children.
It’s not that Higgins hasn’t been looking for work. But starting at the bottom rung of another industry would mean paying for childcare again, by far her family’s biggest expense, on a much lower salary. When she sat down to figure out the numbers, Higgins realized that a $15 an hour job would net her an additional $30 a week.
“I’ve kind of been stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Higgins said.
Across the country, the coronavirus pandemic has disproportionately driven women out of the workforce — hitting female-dominated industries like Higgins’s or forcing couples to choose between higher and lower wage earners in order to provide childcare.
Just days from the next presidential election, there is another yawning gap between men and women: support of Donald Trump. In Wisconsin, women favor Joe Biden over Trump by a 17-point margin. White women with college degrees like Higgins have shifted their allegiances to Democrats; in Wisconsin, they back him by 18 points.
“Suburban women, please vote for me,” Trump has begged them, a line he says is a joke but one he has repeated at nearly every campaign rally in the last two weeks. “Suburban women, you’re supposed to love Trump.”
Since 2016, suburban women have been driven from Trump for many reasons: his sexist and racist comments, his divisiveness, his style. But the pandemic, and its disproportionate effects, are standing clearly in Trump’s way of winning those women back. His strength among voters has always been the economy. But for many women, far more than men, the economy has become inextricable from the virus.
“My world has taken a complete 180 shift from where I was pre-pandemic,” said Higgins. “I have never not had a job, not since I was 16, ever. And now I’ve been unemployed for seven months.”
Trump’s campaign has acknowledged that he does best among voters who are thinking about anything other than the coronavirus pandemic, an issue on which the majority of voters think he has failed. Trump has tried to do everything he can to distract voters — with law and order, with judges, with Hunter Biden.
In the suburbs and exurbs of Milwaukee, a part of the country that will play a vital role in the presidential election, nearly a dozen well-educated white women spoke to BuzzFeed News of the virus as an inescapable force in their daily lives.
For them, there is no distraction. And the worries — particularly about their children — are ever present. In Wisconsin, as the election nears, the virus has only gotten worse, with cases climbing precipitously and record increases in deaths.
In Sheboygan, a county north of Milwaukee that voted for Trump by 16 points in 2016, schools reopened in early September, a sign of hope for parents. But as cases rose and the district faced a shortage of substitute teachers willing to take on the risk of teaching, Sheboygan’s schools were forced to return to virtual learning in mid-October.
And the bitter pandemic winter is on the mind of many of the state’s residents, bringing with it increased isolation, especially over the holidays.
On a chilly fall day this past week, at lunchtime, the schoolyard at Jefferson Elementary School was empty, the blue and yellow playground unused. Many of the trees were bare. On the other side of the state, it was already snowing.
“I think about it every day,” said Anne, a lawyer in a Milwaukee suburb who asked to be identified only by her middle name because of her job. “It’s part of our everyday life now. Even just stuff like trick-or-treating — having to tell my kids, ‘No, we can’t go from house to house this year. No, you can’t go see your friends.’ It’s horrible.”
Anne, an independent, said she voted for Trump in 2016, drawn by the promise of a political outsider who would drain the swamp. She was already disillusioned with him by the time the pandemic arrived. But his handling of the virus “made the decision a lot easier”: Anne is certain she won’t vote for Trump again.
“I think Biden definitely would do a lot better job with the pandemic,” Anne said. “He would be able to reach across the table more effectively than Trump. If anyone can do it, he’s probably the best person to get that done. That’s why I’m leaning toward thinking I will vote for him.”
She’s still weighing whether or not to vote for Biden, whose fiscal liberalism concerns her. She didn’t vote for Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, in 2018. But she’s been convinced by his handling of the pandemic, especially in the face of Republican opposition to restrictions.
“I’m very happy he’s our governor right now,” she said. “He’s doing the best that he can.”
Anne’s world has been tightly constricted because of the virus. A year and a half ago, her younger son fell critically ill and was intubated for three weeks. The memory of it has not left her, and it has made her extremely cautious about coronavirus.
“The virus has been terrifying to my family,” she said. She found out she was pregnant with her third child in February and spent much of her pregnancy worried about how the virus might impact her and the baby.
Anne said she plans to return to work full-time after maternity leave, even with her oldest son in virtual kindergarten. She has childcare help from her parents and her nanny, a flexible work schedule, and an understanding office.
But a stunningly high number of women in the corporate world — 1 in 4 — are considering changing careers, cutting hours, or leaving the workforce altogether because of the pandemic, according to a recent study by McKinsey and the advocacy group Lean In. Women, the study found, have disproportionately taken on the burden of childcare, housework, and virtual school.
In Thiensville, a suburb north of Milwaukee, Mary Helbick has been weathering the pandemic nearly alone with her 5-year-old son, trying to balance his virtual school with her full-time job. She’s a single mother and has only occasional help from her parents, who live two hours away.
Helbick has considered cutting back her hours so that she can spend more time with her son, who has behavioral and learning challenges. She worries about him constantly. It’s painful, she said, to have to turn him away when she’s working, how often she has to reward him with time on her phone.
Even working three fewer hours a week, Helbick thinks, “Would be a big difference. It would not be good for the pocketbook, but sanity is worth a lot.”
At first, when the pandemic began, Helbick’s boss was flexible. But his children have returned to preschool, and for him, she said, it can sometimes seem like the virus has mostly passed. Helbick occasionally has to go into the office, a struggle with childcare. She’s had to return to working normal hours, handling her son’s school in the mornings and on lunch breaks and weekends.
“Right now, I don’t know — everything keeps piling on and piling on. The last few weeks have been really hard. It’s — I need a break. I need some sort of change.”
In Wauwatosa, Susannah Lago runs a group called Working Moms of Milwaukee, where women including Helbick, Higgins, and others have leaned on each other heavily for support throughout the pandemic. Lago’s husband works in person, so she has handled “almost 100%” of virtual schooling for her son while running her own corporate hospitality business, Style Up Group.
“Everyone is having a very, very hard time,” Lago said of the women in her group.
Most of the women in Lago’s group have taken the virus seriously, practicing social distancing and masking and choosing virtual schools for their children over in-person schooling.
For Wisconsin women who are skeptical of the coronavirus’s seriousness, though, the economic problem is not Trump — it’s Democrats.
“I would call this insanity,” said Alexandra, a voter in Sheboygan who said she planned to vote for Trump. “Kids need to be in school. Businesses need to be open. It’s a total control operation. I think it’s asinine.”
Kelsey, a voter in Cedar Grove, said that more than the rising case counts across the state, she was worried about another lockdown closing her children’s school. She and her husband both worked full-time, and she said she didn’t know what she’d do about childcare.
“I’m not sure what’s truthful” when it comes to the virus, Kelsey said; she’d seen conflicting data, and said she didn’t trust testing numbers. “It’s just really tough on working families.”
These voters, who spoke with BuzzFeed News outside of polling places and supermarkets in Sheboygan this past week, are the types of voters on whom Trump has focused his appeal. In the final presidential debate last week, he railed against lockdowns, saying businesses needed to reopen and that the country was “learning to live” with the virus.
Carol, who voted early in Sheboygan, said she was far more concerned about violent protesters than the virus, which she thought had likely been exaggerated. She was furious about the decision to shut down the city’s schools.
“I’m just over it,” Carol said of the virus.
For Lexie Higgins, in West Allis, there have been good things about losing her job. “I always thought I was missing out on my kids being babies,” she said. Her 18-month-old daughter, especially, has been thriving, though she’s struggled with separation anxiety. In some ways, Higgins knows, this would be harder if she was working.
Higgins has thought about leaving the workforce to do a part-time job or to try to find something around her husband’s job, so that they won’t have to pay for childcare. She knows, though, that she can’t stay out of work forever.
“Financially, our budget is not set for me to be a stay-at-home parent,” she said. “I honestly have no idea what the breaking point is going to be.”
Higgins doesn’t identify with either political party. But recently, she’s shifted from a more conservative viewpoint toward “the moderately liberal side” because of social issues and things like maternity leave. She got fewer than three weeks of paid time off when her daughter was born last year, and it still left her without a single sick day the rest of the year.
“I just think something has to change,” Higgins said of the election. “I think we’re not in a good place. I hear people saying, ‘Keep America great,’ and I’m like, Really? This is great?”
Higgins has already voted, as have more than a million Wisconsinites. She said she did not vote for Trump. Meanwhile, cases of COVID-19 across the state are rising precipitously, raging through colleges and nursing homes and forcing schools that once opened to return to virtual learning.
“I feel like we take one step forward, and then several steps back,” Higgins said.