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Feeling the pandemic’s burdens, mothers are looking to Congress

When it comes to paid and job-protected family leave, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of being last in the Western world

OPINION — The women’s movement hit its stride in the 1970s. Women took to the streets demanding equality, the right to their bodies and the right to work.  

But the ashes from those burning bras have long disintegrated. And 50 years later many women, including me, have wondered why there hasn’t been another revolution, this time to demand policies that enable women to succeed both at work and at home. 

With Democrats now in full control of the legislative and executive branches of government, relief for working mothers is on the radar in 2021. 

President Joe Biden has a national plan he calls “Mobilizing American Talent and Heart to Create a 21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce.” Biden’s plan aims to expand child care and services for the elderly and the disabled, and elevate the status and pay of caregivers.

His $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan would reinstate and expand paid leave for parents who need to care for children out of school during the pandemic, and it would allow families to claim a $3,000 credit for every child between ages 6 and 18 and $3,600 for children under 6 years old. Democrats could package it in a reconciliation bill to overcome GOP opposition.

That would be a monumental achievement that eluded even the Democratic Congress of 2009 and 2010, and then-President Barack Obama.

But it will be a long time in coming.

When it comes to paid and job-protected family leave, the U.S. has the dubious distinction of being last in the Western world. Worse than bad policies around care, there aren’t really any national policies that facilitate work and care. Sure, there was the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act during the Clinton administration that enables some employees of covered employers to take unpaid leave.

Progress then came to a halt. It took another quarter century for Congress to grant paid parental leave to federal employees, which it did in a 2019 law.

In 2012, Anne Marie Slaughter, policy planning director for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quit her job and penned an article for the Atlantic entitled “Why women still can’t have it all.”

Her article sparked a national chorus clamoring for change. But again, there was little action. Obama proposed universal pre-K in his 2013 State of the Union address, noting that many GOP-leaning states embraced the idea. But, as with so many of Obama’s proposals, a GOP Congress blocked it. 

Congressional Republicans responded by cutting taxes in a 2017 law, expanding the child tax credit. But this life vest for working mothers barely kept them from drowning amid the tsunami of demands upon them. 

Then COVID-19 came crashing in. Just as the pandemic unearthed the chasms in the nation’s economic and racial disparities, it has also exposed gender inequities. And study after study reveals no one has been hit harder than working moms because of the dearth of paid leave and affordable child care.

Congress tried to ease the burden and passed a law allowing parents to take 12 weeks leave to care for a child at home because of school closures, although it meant taking a 50 percent pay cut or more. And both large and small employers weren’t required to offer the leave. The leave provision expired at the end of 2020. Biden wants to extend it, increase the leave to 14 weeks and require all employers to offer it.

In the meantime, statistics speak volumes. The Census Bureau reported that a third of working women 25 to 44 years old who are unemployed said the reason was a lack of child care. Schools shut down. Work demands increased. It was the perfect storm.

Women, especially women of color, are more likely to have lost their jobs. For those who still have jobs, the structures that made it possible to work and care for families have crumbled. Schools, for example, switched to remote or hybrid classes. “Somebody’s got to oversee that, and women are wildly, disproportionately, bearing that load,” said Slaughter. “And so you’re seeing women opting out. You’re seeing almost a million women who’ve already dropped out of the workforce or went part-time because they just can’t do it.” (Slaughter recently joined the CQ Future podcast.)

One in four women reported that they were considering downsizing their careers or leaving the workforce as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, according to a study by nonprofit Lean In and consulting firm McKinsey & Co. 

Making matters more onerous for women: One-third of working mothers in two-parent households reported they were the only ones providing care for their children, compared with one-tenth of working fathers, according to the Center for Economic and Social Research at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. In December, the jobs report was grim. More than 140,000 jobs were lost, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they all belonged to women.

This is nothing less than a crisis for working moms — whether they work at Walmart or on Wall Street. What’s worse: Women who are dropping out of the labor force may not find a way back in, setting working moms back in pay, in stature and in the ability to climb the career ladder. 

Absent a national policy, some states have tried to fill the gap and provide some form of paid family leave. New York, California, Rhode Island and New Jersey were among the first. Right before the pandemic hit, states across the political spectrum, from Colorado and Maine to Indiana and Oklahoma, were considering family leave legislation. But according to one study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Even if all states passed a paid family leave law at the level of the most generous state today, the U.S. would still be in last place in the world.”

Some firms have stepped in to fill gaps, but this is still not enough to prevent what some now dub a “she-cession.”

“We’re trapped in a caregiving crisis within an economic crisis within a health care crisis,” Biden said in July when he released his plan, saying he would devote $775 billion to it. 

For any working parent, and especially moms, the Biden plan is welcome. But, frankly, it’s eyed with more than a dash of cynicism. Simply, the U.S. government — that includes presidents and Congress — has failed until now to care for working mothers. And at a moment when caregivers need help most, we have had to reckon with our status as orphans.

Joanne Levine is executive producer for CQ Roll Call’s multimedia and a mother of two. 

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