In March, academics, researchers, and advocates came together to discuss the future of the U.S. care infrastructure at a conference presented by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, American University Program on Gender Analysis in Economics, and the Carework Network.

Taking stock of the caregiving landscape in the age of COVID-19, panelists in the opening plenary focused on the impact of the pandemic, the current policy environment and shifting narratives around care, and the urgent changes needed to create a care system that works for women and families.

Plenary speakers included Jocelyn Frye (National Partnership for Women & Families); Gary Barker (Promundo-US); Mignon Duffy (University of Massachusetts Lowell and the Carework Network); Elaine Maag (Urban Institute); Melissa Boteach (National Women’s Law Center); and Lina Bracero (Service Employees International Union). The session was moderated by C. Nicole Mason (Institute for Women’s Policy Research).

Rooting the discussion in their own experiences with care as well as current evidence, panelists reframed care as a public good, rather than a private obligation. Reflecting on the neo-liberalization of care work as a private burden, the call to action was clear: It’s time to shift our understanding of care as a collective responsibility. Based on this approach, the panelists explored what a post-COVID-19 care agenda might look like.

This conversation occurred at a unique and contradictory moment. Renewed public awareness of the long-simmering crisis of care provides a unique opportunity to change care policies. Politicians have begun to regularly speak about the care infrastructure and explore significant expansions of care investment.

At the same time, the COVID-19 crisis not only exposed the fragilities of the care system, it exacerbated them. The pandemic resulted in a significant exodus of care workers from the workforce, and currently, employment in the sector remains 12 percent below pre-pandemic levels.  Many care workers are not paid adequately  even while they perform “essential” work. At the same time, many families live in child care deserts and struggle to find affordable, high-quality care. Melissa Boteach, Vice President for Income Security and Child Care/Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center, underscored the urgency of the issue: “If we do not make public investments, we’re really at risk of setting women’s gains back a generation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic also led to a hike in caregiving burdens placed on parents. According to a recent survey by Promundo and Oxfam-US, 64 percent of men and 55 percent of women said the time they spent on care work increased during the pandemic. While men reported a positive impact from having spent more time with their children, women reported fatigue and feelings of depression. This difference in impact may be because women took on additional care work on top of what they were doing before the pandemic. Gary Barker, President and CEO of Promundo-US, pointed to research on paternity leave utilization to examine how men’s attitudes on career advancement and the feminization of care work can impact care equity. Thus, reimagining care requires a gender-transformative approach: That is, our collective understanding of who performs care must be reevaluated.

It is important to situate critiques of our current care system and attitudes toward care work in history. As Jocelyn Frye, President of the National Partnership for Women & Families, pointed out: Historically, women, especially Black women and women of color, have been expected to play certain roles in providing care—and their services were often undervalued. Frye discussed how Black women are usually co-breadwinners or heads of household, are disproportionately working in low-paying jobs, cannot access the care support they need, and also lack paid leave and other benefits. Mignon Duffy, expanded on this, linking to a long history of women of color performing care labor. And, for Black women, paid leave to support caregiving responsibilities remains elusive. According to a recent brief published by the Center for American Progress, six out of ten leaves needed by Black women remain unutilized or are taken as unpaid leave.

Melissa Boteach emphasized the ways that an under-representative political system distorts care policies. More than 60 percent of Americans support expanding public child care access beyond age five, yet such policies continue to stall in Congress. Lina Bracero echoed this analysis and advocated for leaders to listen to their constituencies and pass the necessary legislation such as the Build Back Better Bill. Panelists tied the lack of investment in care work to the largely White and largely male make-up of congressional decisionmakers. Critiquing non-responsive political structures, Frye noted that White, male Congressional representatives often are not performing care work themselves. This detachment is reflected in the public divestment and devaluation of care work by women, particularly women of color.

What, then, is the “moonshot”? How might we address the deep fractures in the care economy and reconceptualize care as a public good? For many panelists, the creation of a “new kind of social contract” and the prioritization of the care agenda in political and economic approaches are desperately needed. Other solutions included keeping the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, which, as Elaine Maag suggested, “puts money in very low-income people’s pockets.”

Gary Barker put it bluntly: “I’d like men to vote like women and women to be paid like men.”

Melissa Boteach chimed in, “I want to tax the patriarchy and… use the money to invest in the care infrastructure.” Jocelyn Frye added, “I actually want women to be paid better than men,” connecting this labor to the hours of extra care work women do.

Lina Bracero closed out the panel with her “moonshot” aspiration: “For me, it’s seeing women of color who are doing these care jobs actually being paid for their work… Women of color run this economy and are not actually getting paid for their work they are doing. Until we get to a place where that is [happening]… we will not get anywhere.”