As elected officials debate where to spend and where to cut in the Build Back Better plan, it is important to remember that there is a real human cost already being paid for because of the lack of these investments.
Like most people in this country, I know this cost first-hand. I knew that aging and illness were a part of life. But I didn’t know I would become my mother and father’s primary caregiver when they were simultaneously battling Alzheimer’s and cancer respectively. What I did learn quickly was the human cost of policies that do not protect and support people who fulfill this family duty.
Yet, I had to remind myself that I was in a fortunate situation when compared to most. People who do not have paid leave benefits are often cornered into the impossible choices of caring for their loved ones or forgoing income. Such costs — in family finances, physical and emotional health — weigh on too many families who lack the fundamental right to paid family and medical leave.
Right now, paid leave and quality child care in the U.S. are not accessible to most workers and families. Only 21 percent of workers have access to paid family leave through their employers. Only 40 percent have access to employer-provided medical leave. Child care funding reaches a mere one in six eligible children. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these horrible realities, with a devastating and disproportionate impact on women of color.
Our representatives must confront the systemic issues of racism, classism and pay inequity that have disproportionately affected workers and families during this unprecedented pandemic. We cannot "build back better" without investing in paid leave and child care. If we do not, our investment in recovery will fall short, leaving many women, Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities and families who earn low wages behind. In the end, our country and our economy will not thrive.
Fortunately, we can rebuild our economy and increase equity if members of Congress prioritize robust investments in paid leave and child care in the reconciliation package. Congress is currently considering a historic package that has a chance to guarantee paid leave and affordable childcare for us all. We need them to invest in our workers, the way our workers have invested in them.
The federal paid leave policy passed as part of the Build Back Better plan needs to be sufficient enough to ensure that:
No family spends more than 7 percent of their income on child care and many families can access care at no cost;
Child care providers are paid a living wage;
Families can find affordable, culturally relevant and safe child care no matter where they live — from providers of different types;
Comprehensive paid family and medical leave that includes 12 weeks of paid leave is readily available;
This leave must include provisions that prevent financial destabilization through adequate wage replacement, protect workers' right to return to work after taking leave and recognize all families.
When families win, we all win. Just and equitable child care policies return huge benefits for families, communities and the economy. These policies have the potential to add jobs to the economy, increase employee retention, productivity and morale. They are key to a family’s economic wellbeing, the health of children and meaningful prosperity for all people.
We are so close to having an inclusive federal paid leave policy and greater access to child care. Congress has a once-in-a-generation chance to respond to the urgent needs of families and workers. This is our chance to get it right and make comprehensive investments in our care system that include living wages, access to health care and child care, and paid family and medical leave for every working family. How we choose to support and invest in our nation’s working families defines our humanity as a nation.
Carol Joyner is the director for the Labor Project for Working Families (LPWF) at Family Values @ Work.