The Biden administration must think globally about child care

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The Biden administration has made an essential and unprecedented push to make it easier for families to afford quality child care. They’ve argued that access to child care will help parents, particularly women, get back to work and help economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. 

Access to affordable child care is a vital part of the Biden domestic policy agenda, and for a good reason: Good child care policies have the potential to change the equation for children, their caregivers, and the U.S. economy. If the Biden administration wants to close the long-standing gender gaps, it also needs to think globally, and its child care agenda needs to extend beyond the United State’s borders. 

It’s not just the U.S. where accessing affordable and quality child care is a significant issue — women globally face challenges juggling child care responsibilities with paid work. According to the World Bank, over 40 percent of children, or nearly 350 million children below primary school age, need child care but do not have access to it. Lack of access to child care disproportionately impacts families in low- and middle-income countries, where nearly eight out of 10 children do not have access. Also, a child in a low-income country is almost five times less likely to have access to child care than a child living in a high-income country. 

A new analysis from the Center for Global Development, where I work, finds that women bear the burden when access to child care is lacking. In the past year alone, women across the globe provided on average an extra 173 hours of unpaid care each — three times more than men. Astoundingly women around the world provided 501 billion hours of additional child care in just one year. While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to child care and inequalities in who provides unpaid care, this severe problem predated the pandemic.

These unpaid burdens prevent women from thriving economically. In 2018, 606 million women of working age worldwide could not work due to child care responsibilities, compared to 41 million men. Lack of child care contributes to many of the most serious gender gaps: Women start businesses less frequently, have lower earnings, have to take absences from work, miss out on promotions, and forgo working altogether — not because they want to, but because they lack access to child care means that their professional goals have to take a back seat. 

The Biden administration should make the provision of affordable, quality child care a key priority in its global development plan as a means to promote women’s economic empowerment and broader gender equality as well as children’s health, nutrition and broader development. There are specific concrete steps the Biden administration can take right now to support quality child care solutions globally, with no shortage of upcoming opportunities to take a leadership role.

First, the U.S. should join the soon-to-be-launched Alliance for Care Work, being spearheaded by Mexico and UN Women through the Generation Equality Forum. By doing so, the administration will make an ambitious commitment to dedicate overseas development assistance through USAID, Millennium Challenge Corporation, and other development agencies to support child care solutions in low- and middle-income countries. Second, as a significant shareholder in the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA), which provides loans and grants to the poorest countries, the Biden administration should ensure that child care is prioritized on the IDA agenda for the first time through its upcoming replenishment. Third, the U.S. should work with its 2X Challenge partners, all of whom have committed to using their resources to promote women’s economic empowerment, to invest in child care solutions in low- and middle-income countries, building on the model of CDC Group’s investment in KLAY. And finally, the White House Gender Policy Council should collaborate with all U.S. international development agencies to ensure that strengthening the global care economy is core to future investments. 

Critics might say that we need to focus on the domestic child care agenda before we think beyond our borders. But the Biden administration has proven its ability to walk and chew gum simultaneously, and there’s also an important economic argument for addressing this issue everywhere right now. Letting women across the globe fall further and further behind economically will hinder global economic development, slowing the U.S.’s recovery as well. The Biden administration knows this: First Lady Jill Biden wrote that she hopes to work “across borders and oceans on how to elevate the importance of early care and learning for children.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in unprecedented loss and the widening of global gender gaps. But it has also presented an opportunity to intentionally build back more equitably — not just in the U.S. but globally. Now is the time to think big about tackling long-standing inequalities. Now is the time to pioneer innovative ideas that lead to an equal future for all people regardless of gender. And now is the time for the Biden administration to think globally about childcare and invest in women worldwide.

Megan O’Donnell leads the Center for Global Development’s COVID-19 Gender and Development Initiative, which aims to promote gender equality and long-term prosperity in low- and middle-income countries by informing global and national decision-makers’ policy responses to the current pandemic and future crises.

Tags biden administration Child care child care access child care affordability coronavirus economic crisis COVID-19 gender gap Jill Biden Joe Biden working moms

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