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If Congress wants to spark economic recovery, it must invest in care

March 20, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC
Commentary-Investing in Caregivers
Congress should support childcare workers if it wants to help the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, writes Tina Tchen.
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December marked the end of a devastating year for women. Women made up more than half of the 9.4 million net jobs lost in 2020. Between January and December 2020, more than 2.1 million women left the labor force, including 605,000 Black women and 382,000 Latinas.

The last time U.S. women’s labor force participation was as low as it is today, Ronald Reagan was President, the Internet was years away from going public, and a gallon of gas cost 90¢.

This jobs crisis is occurring on top of long-standing inequities—fueled by racism, sexism, and other systemic barriers—that have harmed women, and especially women of color and women in low-paying jobs, for generations.

One of these systemic barriers has become even more apparent during the pandemic: the unprecedented caregiving burdens that disproportionately fall on women.

Caregivers make up the backbone of our economy—whether you are a single woman struggling to recover from an illness, a childcare worker facing long-term unemployment, or a daughter caring for aging parents, at some point in your life, you or someone you know will need care. Yet our workplaces are not built to support that. Nearly 50% of companies reported lack of childcare as an impediment to hiring or calling back workers during the pandemic.

This crisis is inextricably linked to Time’s Up’s fight for safety and equity at work. Creating workplaces where sexual harassment does not happen in the first place requires upending the power imbalances that currently exist, and truly building inclusive workplaces, up and down the wage scale. That means addressing the structural barriers keeping women and other workers from succeeding, and staying, in the workforce.

We cannot allow a generation of women’s labor gains to disappear. This is why there’s a tremendous sense of urgency to solve the caregiving crisis roiling our country—and that starts with a robust public investment in our caregiving infrastructure.

For too long, our approach in the United States has been to treat caregiving as a “personal” issue that workers, mostly women and particularly women of color and women with little financial recourse, are supposed to figure out on their own. 

As a result, we are one of only a handful of countries in the world with no national paid parental leave law. Among member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, America ranks 33rd out of 36 in public spending on families and children, and looking at trends of long-term beds and hospitals’ resources, it ranks 23rd out of 28 in willingness to spend on elder care. (The two studies used different data sets.) 

Building a comprehensive care infrastructure will create millions of jobs and spur billions of dollars of economic growth at a crucial time. Time’s Up Foundation’s latest report concluded that investing $77.5 billion annually will create or support 2 million jobs and spark $220 billion in new economic activity. This robust approach builds off the Biden-Harris plan and goes beyond child and elder care to include different forms of care—such as residential care, substance abuse care, and home health care sectors. All of the sectors that would experience major job creation are dominated by low-wage workers—the majority of whom are women of color—precisely the workers who have been disproportionately harmed by the pandemic.

With more women in Congress than ever before, we have a window of opportunity to make a significant public investment in our care infrastructure. It’s time for national leaders to come together and support caregivers and the people they care for. After all, doing so cares for all of us—and for our country’s economic well-being at this fragile time. 

Tina Tchen serves as president and CEO of Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation.