On April 30 , 2021, Julie Kashen, director, women’s economic justice and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, submitted written testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee Hearing, “In Their Own Words: Paid Leave, Child Care, and an Economy that Failed Women.” Published below, her testimony describes how the pandemic shone a spotlight on the lack of a care infrastructure and how that deficiency, eroded further by the pandemic, damaged women’s economic prospects, and in particular exacerbated the challenges that Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women face as caregivers. The testimony concludes with recommendations for how to build the care economy that has been needed all along.
In November, academic Jessica Calarco explained what the pandemic had revealed: “other countries have safety nets, the U.S. has women.” Millions of women around the nation felt this acutely over the past fourteen months, as the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis closed schools and child care programs; reduced the ability to rely on family, friends and neighbors; and required unexpected time spent doing unpaid caregiving and providing support for remote learning while managing work.
Getting women back to work requires that we build the care economy that has been needed all along. We must build a robust child care and early learning system and ensure that, when women, or other caregivers, take time to care for their families, they do not suffer grave reductions in income or permanent job loss. This system should include paid family and medical leave and a substantial, multi-year investment to improve child care access, affordability, and physical infrastructure; increase the supply of child care in areas with child care shortages; and raise the wages of early educators and other child care staff.
The Impact of the Pandemic on Caregiving
Over the past forty years, as more women entered the labor force and brought home larger paychecks, they have driven 91 percent of the income gains experienced by middle-class families. And in February 2020, right before the pandemic hit, women held half of the jobs in the U.S. labor force. But, since the start of the pandemic, roughly 2 million women have left the labor force nationwide, disproportionately due to caregiving needs. During the depths of last year’s economic crisis, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that women’s participation in the workforce fell to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. And today, 1.5 million fewer moms of school-aged children are actively working than in February 2020.
Black, Latinx, and Indigenous women especially—facing intersecting oppressions—have felt multiple effects: they are more likely to have lost their jobs or be on the frontlines as essential workers, and are mostly left to solve their child care challenges on their own.
At the same time, child care providers—nearly all small businesses and community-based providers, overwhelmingly owned or run by women and disproportionately by people of color—have been hit hard by the pandemic and are struggling. Providers have faced decreasing revenues due to lower enrollment while also being required to pay higher expenses for personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation, additional staff, and other needs to operate safely. These programs were already operating on extremely thin margins before the pandemic.
Child care providers who have stayed open have gone to enormous lengths to do so: two in five providers report taking on debt for their programs using personal credit cards to pay for increased costs. One in six child care jobs, generally held by women of color, still haven’t come back—much more than the one in twenty jobs that have been lost throughout the economy. Child care workers were already underpaid before the pandemic began, with wages only reaching about $24,000 a year, or about $11.50 an hour, resulting in economic instability and high turnover in child care jobs.
At the same time, the emergency paid sick days and paid family leave policies enacted during the pandemic substantially helped people to address their health and care needs. However, these emergency paid leave policies have now expired, and today only 21 percent of American workers have access to employer-provided paid family leave (such as parental and caregiving leave) and just 42 percent of American workers have access to paid medical leave (including short-term disability) through an employer-provided plan. Moreover, only ten states have adopted paid leave programs, so in the majority of states, people have no paid leave at all. This lack of paid leave undermines caregivers’ success in the workplace and workers ability to meet their care responsibilities.
A National History of Devaluing Care
The devaluing of care work in American society and thus in American policy is by design. One of the many legacies of slavery is the shouldering of care responsibilities by the people in our society with the least power and fewest resources. In the early twentieth century, white lawmakers excluded care workers—who were overwhelmingly Black women—from fair wages and labor protections in order to preserve the status quo. To this day, our culture and policies continue to undervalue and invisibilize caregiving, leaving caregivers underpaid or unpaid, and without the support they need to thrive.
This history has also contributed to the expectation that family care is an individual responsibility, rather than a communal one: if you struggle, there’s something wrong with you. In reality, care has been a universal need and a public good that requires collective, public-policy-supported solutions, and now more than ever must be treated as such. It is time for our government to commit to prioritizing public investment in care, including in the care workforce.
The Need to Build a Better Care Economy
Even before the pandemic, too many families could not find affordable, high-quality child care options when and where they need them. Fewer than one in seven eligible children were served by the Child Care and Development Block Grant and related federal child care programs. Families—particularly in rural areas—struggled with a lack of care options. Research from Center for American Progress finds that over half of Americans live in a child care desert, or a neighborhood with an insufficient supply of licensed child care.
The lack of affordable, high-quality child care options impacts children’s well-being and preparedness for school and parents’ ability to work or go to school. The burden falls disproportionately on mothers, since women do more of the unpaid work within the home, including spending more time caring for children than men—even men with similar demographic backgrounds and parental status. Single-parent and lower-income families are hit especially hard. Communities of color also often have less access to great child care options, so the lack of comprehensive child care solutions exacerbates racial inequities, since high-quality care can lead to better school, life, and work outcomes. Smart child care policies are not only the right thing to do; they are also a pathway to progress on gender, racial, and income equality; child development and family well-being; educational outcomes; and economic growth.
Sarah Jane Glynn from the Center for American Progress, my colleague Amanda Novello from The Century Foundation, and I set out to quantify the losses to women and the economy from the erosion in child care and school supervision hours resulting from the pandemic. We found that, without government action, the reduction in women’s labor force participation and work hours at the height of the pandemic had the potential to cost the U.S. economy an estimated $64.5 billion in lost wages and economic activity. That’s about the size of the GDP of New Hampshire.
The American Rescue Plan helped to mitigate some of this. Now it’s time to build back better. A good child care program has to have five major goals:
- address affordability for families, ensuring child care is available when and where families need it and families can easily access it;
- ensure that child care jobs are good jobs, with good wages and benefits and the right to join a union and organize;
- implement quality-assurance measures, equipped with the resources to improve quality and sensitivity to cultural differences in defining quality;
- address the continuum of care, starting at birth and including the needs of school-age children and children with disabilities; and
- ensure all stakeholders have a say in the system.
Investing in such a program is both job creating and job sustaining—two for the price of one. The return would be substantial: The Times Up Foundation estimates that a $775 billion care economy investment over ten years would create 22.5 million new jobs and translate into $220 billion in new economic activity annually. And that economic boost figure does not even include the support for additional jobs and economic activity in the form of increased employment of parents and other family caregivers.
In addition, an equitable recovery compels an inclusion of meaningful and permanent paid family and medical leave that includes at least twelve paid weeks for all workers so that they can bond with their new child, address a personal or family illness (including serious mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and including people considered family by affinity rather than blood or legal affiliation), for bereavement, or to handle needs that arise from a military deployment.
The benefits of paid leave programs have been well-established in the states that have implemented them, including in California and New Jersey, the latter being where I had the honor of helping to enact the second paid leave program in the nation as deputy policy director to the governor. In both states, among other benefits, the long-term workplace retention of women who have children has increased since they established these efforts.
Like clean water, safe food, and good public schools, high quality, affordable child care and paid leave for all are national priorities that benefit everyone. We as a country want to ensure that all children, families, and communities can thrive—and we have the ability to do that by coming together to invest in a bright future for all of us.