Establish a National Child Care Infrastructure
Like many working mothers, Nancy, a public affairs professional in Arlington, Virginia, left the workplace where she had spent almost 15 years in order to take care of her two-month old son when the pandemic took away her child care options. She expressed a sense of guilt in an interview with WBUR: “[M]y mother, she dedicated her life to raising me and my siblings. And while I think we are as successful today because of her, I know that one of her biggest regrets was not having a career and that was part of the guilt that I felt making this decision to step out of the workplace.”
While individual mothers like Nancy felt guilty about leaving the workplace, they were forced into making such choice due to a lack of robust care infrastructure in this country. The United States significantly lags behind other industrialized countries in public investment in early care and education, and the pandemic plunged the nation’s already precarious care infrastructure into crisis. About 60 percent of childcare programs across all provider types were fully closed by April, leaving working parents with little to no support.
The Cares Act provided $3.5 billion in relief for child-care centers and $13.5 billion for K-12 schools, but this has proved woefully insufficient. The child-care industry alone requires at least $9.6 billion in public funding each month for the providers to survive the pandemic.
Just like roads and bridges, care is a critical piece of our economic infrastructure that allows parents to get to work. In the long run, we need a national childcare system that is able to meet the needs of all families, providing affordable, high-quality childcare regardless of race, ethnicity, geographical location, or household income. Doing so would require a significant increase in the public investment in the childcare industry.
The pandemic-induced recession has already wiped out many hard-fought gains women made in the workplace over the past few years. As individual women like Nancy who were forced out of the workforce wonder: “[A]m I no longer carrying the Baton and move things forward?”, there should be a collective reckoning with the lack of support for working parents and the unequal, gendered division of labor. The price of not taking actions is that women’s economic progress will be set back for decades. Building a robust care infrastructure will be the key to achieving a gender-equitable recovery.