For a true recovery, lawmakers must upgrade America's care infrastructure

For a true recovery, lawmakers must upgrade America's care infrastructure
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It’s no surprise why women’s employment plummeted during the pandemic — and no mystery what’s needed to fix it. The problem is our nation’s shameful lack of paid leave and affordable, high-quality child care. Fortunately, the solution is also obvious: A comprehensive federal policy of paid family and medical leave and a substantial investment to make child care dependable, accessible and sustainable for those who provide it.

During the pandemic, women left the labor force in record numbers, with caregiving needs being a driving factor. Today, over 2 million fewer women are working outside of the home compared to a year ago. Pandemic-related job losses have been greatest among women of color and especially among those earning low wages — the result of persistent structural racism and economic inequality. Our society has long undervalued child care providers, who are disproportionately Black, Latinx and immigrant women. Predictably, one in six lost a job this past year.

As the pandemic has shone a light on our country’s caregiving crisis, policymakers have taken note. The U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on May 27 on universal child care and paid family and medical leave, the third Congressional hearing on these issues in five weeks. President BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE proposed a bold investment in child care and the creation of a national paid leave program in his American Families Plan, and members of Congress have introduced several legislative proposals to advance them both. 

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This interest can’t come too soon. For millions of American families, the struggle to manage employment and care is not new. The United States is the only wealthy country without a national paid leave program. For 92 percent of workers in the lowest-wage jobs, the birth of a child or an unexpected illness can result in lost earnings and even job loss.

The story on child care is no better. Even before the pandemic, families struggled to afford care, while child care workers earned poverty wages. Six out of seven children who are eligible for government-funded child care assistance don’t get any help due to insufficient funding. The pandemic has had a devastating impact on the sector. Since February 2020, more than 100,000 child care facilities have closed and many more are operating at a loss due to lower capacity and increased costs of meeting health and safety standards in light of COVID-19. 

As Congress develops infrastructure legislation, it must recognize caregiving as the foundation of our economy. Our nation’s child care system needs an overhaul so American families can go to work and know their children are safe, well cared for and thriving — without sacrificing the bulk of their paycheck. Families need paid time off when they welcome a new child or when they or their loved ones get sick. No one should have to choose between caring for a loved one and their livelihood. What’s more, investments in child care and paid leave make our economy stronger. Paid leave is proven to support women’s employment, reduce worker turnover and bolster family economic security — saving families nationwide over $22 billion annually. Investments in quality child care similarly strengthen family financial stability, create jobs and raise child care workers’ wages, and support children’s wellbeing and development.  

Both policies would also improve gender and racial equity. The gaping holes in our caregiving infrastructure must be fixed or we risk excluding from our economic recovery the very families who have been hurt the most by the impacts of the pandemic — workers earning low wages, who are disproportionately Black and Brown women. Like roads and housing, paid leave and child care are essential for families to return to work, stay employed and support our shared success. And like roads and housing, the foundation of care must be solid and reliable.

Under the spotlight of the pandemic, we have seen the damaging effects on workers of a country without paid leave and without child care. American families need a national, comprehensive, paid family and medical leave program that serves all workers — no matter where they live or who their employer is. Policymakers must also guarantee affordable, high-quality child care for children, for every family, when and where they need it. It’s time to invest in a modern caregiving infrastructure that supports families and the many people — disproportionately women of color — who provide paid care. When we invest in families, we make our country stronger, by creating economic security and equitable opportunity for all. 

Hannah Matthews is deputy executive director for Policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national, nonpartisan, anti-poverty organization advancing policy solutions for people with low incomes. CLASP’s solutions directly address the barriers people face because of their race, ethnicity, and immigration status.

Sade Moonsammy is interim executive director of Family Values @ Work, a movement network of grassroots coalitions in more than two dozen states working to win paid family and medical leave, earned sick and safe days, and affordable, high-quality childcare at the state and national levels.