The COVID-19 pandemic has put the United States through an unprecedented economic crisis and shone a spotlight on long-standing challenges to American families and economic growth. While people across the country have struggled, American women—and particularly women of color—have absorbed the harshest effects of the pandemic as caregivers and essential workers, and they continue to be disproportionately left behind in the recovery. This did not happen by chance; long-standing gaps in work-family policies and instability in low-wage service and care sector jobs have gone and continue to go unaddressed, primarily affecting the economic lives of women—and women of color in particular.
President Joe Biden led a powerful and effective response to the emergency through the American Rescue Plan, and Congress is on track to move forward a bipartisan package to address America’s infrastructure. This infrastructure bill would be a boon for America’s economic growth—one that presidents of both parties have tried and failed to accomplish for decades as America’s crumbling roads and bridges, insufficient broadband access, and other dilapidated infrastructure have held back economic growth.
However, if funding infrastructure is the only action taken by Congress and the rest of President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda remains unpassed, there will be little hope for a balanced, sustainable, and equitable economic recovery. Specifically, as vital as the jobs created by the bipartisan infrastructure bill would be, they would almost all be created in occupations that overwhelmingly employ men, without support for occupations primarily held by women.
Leaving women behind again would hold back families and the economy for yet another generation. But the broader Build Back Better agenda, which has already been set in motion with a reconciliation framework in the Senate, would do more than just go back to business as usual and finally, after decades of need, tackle fundamental obstacles for women in the economy.
Women’s long-standing economic struggles were exacerbated by the pandemic
Women have borne the brunt of pandemic-related employment impacts both because of the nature of their work and the nature of their responsibilities outside of paid work. Sectors such as hospitality—including the restaurant sector—faced some of the most extreme layoffs and closures in 2020 and 2021. Meanwhile, even before the pandemic, women were more likely to work part time or full time in low-wage and tipped occupations, leading to financial precarity and unpredictable pay and hours.
The way unemployment is measured effectively obscures the declining numbers of women in the workforce, even as an employment recovery takes hold: Since February 2020, more than 1.6 million women have left the labor force entirely and are not job hunting, which means they are no longer counted in monthly unemployment rates. If these 1.6 million women were included in unemployment figures, the National Women’s Law Center calculates that the unemployment rate for women would have been 7.6 percent in June 2021, with Black women and Latinas experiencing the highest rates, at 11.7 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively.
The political challenges of addressing these issues are not new, which has contributed to the fact that they are so ingrained. If mid-career white men were unemployed and out of the labor market at these rates, even economically conservative politicians would be acting with urgency to boost employment and financial support. Instead, some governors are cutting off their constituents’ access to the unemployment insurance provided by the federal government, paying little attention to the factors affecting women’s job losses. This is particularly concerning given that 1 in 4 unemployed women have been out of work for a year or longer.
Women’s employment is not an add-on for families, and it must not be an afterthought in policymaking. In 2019, 4 in 10 working mothers were the primary or sole breadwinner in their family, meaning they brought in the majority of the family’s wages. And an additional 25 percent of working mothers bring in more than a quarter of their family’s wages. This income is crucial to not only the financial security of these women but also that of their families and the overall economy.
Sectors that employ almost exclusively women underpin the work of all Americans, just as roads, bridges, and transportation do. Without child care, education, and health care, millions of people who don’t work in those sectors would have to stay home to provide care for their families. The pandemic illustrated this clearly, as millions of parents and caregivers had to supervise children in online or hybrid learning settings instead of working their regular hours. The pandemic also highlighted a long-standing problem in the United States: the lack of access to affordable, quality child care. Indeed, many families—especially mothers—faced similar challenges to parental workforce participation before the pandemic.
Building back better: How the economic recovery can address challenges for women workers
A bipartisan infrastructure deal will improve the economy, but a focus on physical infrastructure would almost exclusively be a boost to male workers. Without the remainder of President Biden’s economic agenda, women will be left behind.
The current gender segregation of construction versus care industries also demonstrates the need for concerted effort, through federally supported training and hiring, to diversify the higher-wage industries and occupations in the infrastructure space. Notably, within the current political context, there is evidence that the clean energy industry employs a greater share of women than the energy sector overall. Accordingly, the climate-focused investments in the Build Back Better agenda would likely affect women’s employment more significantly than would the bipartisan infrastructure plan. However, it is worth noting that U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data on employment do not provide gender breakdowns for many clean energy occupations, due to small sample sizes.
Beyond direct funding to the sectors that would boost women’s employment, by increasing access to reliable and affordable high-quality child care as well as paid family and medical leave, the Build Back Better agenda would be a boon for all workers. These supports would allow parents to continue to bring in wages for their families, even after the most care-intensive years of parenting.
In a typical year, workers and their families lose $22.5 billion in wages due to a lack of access to paid family and medical leave. Paid family and medical leave has enormous benefits for maternal health, child health, and families’ economic security. It also improves job quality, which is good for workers and employers: Not having to lose a job to get medical care or spend time with a newborn means that employers don’t have to hire and train new employees. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco indicates that there would be 5 million more people in the workforce if the United States enacted national paid leave and more affordable child care.
A growing shortage of home care workers
Home care workers—disproportionately women, people of color, and those from low-income households—have provided essential care during the pandemic and enabled millions of others to go to work. But they are chronically underpaid, leading to high turnover and staffing shortages across the country. A recent initiative in Washington state to provide hazard pay to this workforce demonstrates that raising wages can significantly boost economic stability, reduce turnover, and attract more workers to the career field. Yet poverty wages and insufficient federal investment leaves more than 800,000 Americans with disabilities who qualify for Medicaid on waitlists to receive home- and community-based support services; and only 3 in 10 noninstitutionalized seniors who require services receive paid care. Clearly, many more individuals could benefit from broader eligibility standards for these programs.
During the pandemic, without universal access to leave and care options, parents and caregivers took unpaid leave, cut work hours, left and lost jobs, didn’t look for jobs, or simultaneously tried to work and provide care. Even the most privileged families were unable to avoid disruptions to their caregiving system. Notably, women still provide the overwhelming majority of care for their families and on behalf of their communities, which has long-term impacts for their career trajectories and wages.
When the pandemic is fully under control, this situation will play out at the individual- and family-level scale again and again: A year of widening pay gaps and career disparities will likely strengthen the factors that push households away from equitable caregiving arrangements—even when heterosexual couples say that they prefer equitable caregiving arrangements. The child care crisis typically costs the United States $57 billion a year in lost earnings, productivity, and revenue. In the extraordinary circumstances of 2020 and 2021, however, the women who left the labor market to provide care for their families will take an enormous hit to both immediate and lifetime earnings.
Even the new refundability of the child tax credit has particular ramifications for women: Because of occupational segregation, the wage gap, and other factors that contribute to economic inequality, 7 in 10 children in single-headed female households were previously ineligible for the full tax credit because these working mothers made too little income. An extension of refundability will therefore be crucial for these families to access the support that they’re due.
The policies represented in the Build Back Better agenda—family paid and medical leave, an improved child care system, the child tax credit—would have a positive impact on the lives of all Americans; but they are a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the lives of American women.
Lily Roberts is the managing director of Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.
The author would like to thank Laura McSorley, Michael Madowitz, Karla Walter, Kyle Ross, Kevin DeGood, and Jocelyn Frye for their contributions to this column.
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