There was never a question of who would quit. As a preschool teacher in Cedar Rapids, Samantha Roy made less than one-fifth of her husband’s salary. Now, Roy, 37, is managing virtual learning for their four kids and feels like she’s falling apart. She represents a phenomenon that sociologist Jessica Calarco recently observed: “Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women.”
The U.S. economy cannot fully recover without bailing out women. One in five American women have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and women have recovered only about 39% of the jobs they lost since the spring — compared to 58% for men.
As Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “Women, especially women of color, are disproportionately bearing the brunt of this pandemic and economic crisis.” So what should a Biden-Harris administration do about it?
The most critical issue is helping working moms with kids at home. Women are more than twice as likely as men to say they left the workforce owing to virtual schooling and a lack of child care. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to reopening public schools within his first 100 days in office, but that’s an eternity for women struggling to oversee children’s education. Whether by prioritizing vaccines for teachers or securing funding to help adapt school environments for covid-19, Biden and Harris should do everything within their power to get kids in classrooms as soon as possible.
The other key is addressing the shortage of affordable child care. Since April, 60% of licensed child-care centers have closed. Getting them reopened would help women in two ways — allowing many to return to the workforce and re-creating many of the jobs women have lost, because some 92% of child-care workers are women.
The House passed two bills this summer that would provide a total of $60 billion to help child-care facilities reopen. While this legislation languishes in the Senate, 82% of child-care providers expect to go out of business before next summer. Sixty billion dollars is a pathetic sum compared to what’s been doled out to businesses less essential to the economy, but at least enacting this legislation would be a good start.
The success of some women, however, cannot be built on the poverty of others. Last year, the average annual wage for a child-care worker was $25,510 — just under the federal poverty threshold for a family of four. Child-care jobs simply don’t pay enough to justify the expenses workers must assume in securing care for their own children, as well as the risk of contracting covid-19.
Child-care availability won’t dramatically increase without measures to boost worker wages. Biden’s promise of a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage will help. But federal and state subsidies are still needed so that child-care centers can pay enough to expand the supply of care to meet the country’s critical demand. It would be a smart investment: By one estimate, the United States is forgoing $1.6 trillion in gross domestic product by not providing subsidized child care that would allow more women to work.
Women are also held back by a workplace culture that expects them to work as though they didn’t have a 3-year-old at their feet. It’s time for change.
Employers have been clamoring for federal relief, from industry-specific bailouts to liability protections. The Biden-Harris administration should work with lawmakers to condition aid on the implementation of family-friendly workplace policies. Companies that don’t offer flexible hours, the option of a four-day work week and paid parental leave should not receive taxpayer support.
The next administration must also put women in charge of the economic recovery. It’s a little gender-essentialist to say so, but having the recovery led by women is the best way to ensure that policymaking focuses on the obstacles women face. Biden’s choices of Janet Yellen for treasury secretary and Cecilia Rouse as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers represent a promising start. But gender and racial diversity must be reflected at every level of government.
Labor secretary is another position that will be key to the recovery. Biden could do worse than departing Iowa representative Abby Finkenauer, who is reportedly on the short list for the job. Women, Finkenauer points out, are overrepresented in the most precarious jobs — those on the front lines against covid-19 or in the highly unstable gig economy. During her time in Congress, Finkenauer focused on measures to help working women — introducing a collective-bargaining bill, highlighting the importance of paid leave and calling attention to the lack of benefits for gig workers.
Unfortunately, these problems will not end when the pandemic does. Women will have to contend with holes in their résumés, lost pay and a wider wage gap. For her part, Samantha Roy is unsure whether there will even be a job for her to return to.
Lawmakers must begin to recognize that the economy’s success depends not on Wall Street or corporations but on American women. Help for them, for us, cannot come soon enough.
Lyz Lenz is the author of “God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America” and “Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women.”