Why is it America doesn’t value children or families? If France could provide eight weeks maternity leave to working women in 1913, we can certainly provide paid family leave in 2021. If Germany could decide 30 years ago that children should have the right to child care, we can make care more affordable.
In fact, half of European countries guarantee early childhood education and care from age 3. They understand that providing child care and pre-K is not baby-sitting — it’s education that fuels brain development in the most formative years of a child’s life so that child grows up to be a success for themselves, their family, and their community and country.
And the family members who bear the overwhelming brunt of the responsibility for our failure as a country are working women and mothers. They have always been America’s fallback plan. Though we’ve made great strides in the advancement of women’s rights, we have had to do so with less investment, substandard pay, and little to no assistance with the challenges of keeping a home, caring for family members and ensuring our children are getting the education and nurturing they need to succeed.
This has never been more obvious than during the pandemic, when 1.6 million women left the workforce, taking us back to 1988 levels of women’s labor force participation. In September, men gained 220,000 jobs as women lost 26,000 jobs. Last month, more than 1 in 3 adult unemployed women had been out of work for six months of longer, largely due to the state of America’s care infrastructure — which was already hanging by a thread before the pandemic, but has been almost obliterated since the pandemic.
This has left many women who have long juggled work, home and family life feeling as though they’re failing. Truth be told, it’s Congress that is failing them.
We fail to invest in paid family and medical leave, so women return to work just two weeks after giving birth or quit their jobs to care for aging parents. In fact, the average length of paid leave offered by EU countries is 22 weeks, and of the 185 countries that offer paid leave for new moms, just one, Eswatini (formerly called Swaziland) offers fewer than four weeks.
We fail to invest in child care and early education, so families spend more on infant care than in-state college tuition even as child care providers earn poverty wages. Mind you, child care for an infant and a preschooler in San Mateo County runs $3,200 per month, as much as 30% of the typical family’s income.
We fail to invest in maternal health, so Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, and the United States has an appallingly high maternal mortality rate that eclipses other wealthy nations.
We fail to invest in climate action, so women disproportionately bear the burden of extreme weather and natural disasters.
When will Congress be accountable for its failures?
The only way to address this historic failure, and get women back to work, is by investing in care. To do that, we must pass the Build Back Better Act to lower the cost of child and in-home care services, create jobs and jump-start our economy by billions of dollars. In California, the typical family of four stands to save $28,000 on child care expenses in the Build Back Better Act. That’s money that can be used for rent, groceries, health care, savings and retirement.
The economic incentive is enough on its own to merit action, but it’s not the only incentive. The Build Back Better Act is also the morally and ethically right thing to do. Women and hard-working families in America, especially those of color, are done with being expected to carry the heaviest load as they juggle everything else and being told to accept and expect less.
Women should and must be able to return to work and be paid fair wages, know that their children and loved ones are cared for, and have the health care they deserve. We know that 90% of the jobs from investments in roads and bridges such as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Funding bill will go to men and will not address any of the systemic barriers women face. The Build Back Better Act is essential for setting our economy and the next generations up for success. Without adequate investments into the care economy we are choosing to leave women behind — again.
Instead, we must finally do right by our families, businesses, economy and children. We must put our money where our mouths are when it comes to touting family values. We must pass the Build Back Better Act now.
Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, represents District 14 in the U.S. House of Representatives and is co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus.