Advancing Women’s Progress and Spurring Economic Growth through Women’s Labor Force Participation

By Julie Kohler, Stephanie Odiase, and Jessica Forden

Building an economy oriented around economic security, dignity, and human thriving requires significant paradigmatic shifts, in addition to policy changes.

We may be at the dawn of a new economic era — one that acknowledges the centrality of women to a strong and robust economy and the role the government must play in advancing women’s economic dignity, opportunity, and security.

The Biden-Harris administration has placed caregiving front and center in its economic recovery effort. The American Rescue Plan included $39 billion in relief funding to support families and help the recovery of the child care sector, which was decimated by the pandemic. The plan also significantly expanded the child tax credit, providing for the first time a monthly stipend to the vast majority of families with children under the age of 18. Although not included in the bipartisan infrastructure deal, the Biden-Harris administration’s original American Jobs Plan called for $400 billion in new investment in home and community-based care for seniors and people with disabilities and $25 billion for building new child care facilities. And the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan proposes major new investments in universal pre-K, child care assistance, and paid family and medical leave.

Notably, some members of Congress have proposed even larger-scale investments. Legislation introduced by Senator Patty Murray, Representative Bobby Scott, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Representative Mondaire Jones proposed early care and education investments that are estimated to cost $600 billion and $700 billion, respectively — significantly more than the $425 billion allotted in the American Families Plan.

This positioning of women as key to the economic recovery represents a refreshing, if long overdue, direction for U.S. social and economic policy. Many of the policies included in the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan would be transformational, bringing the U.S. in line with most other wealthy, industrialized democracies with the benefits it provides to working families, and greatly increasing women’s economic opportunity and security.

But building an economy oriented around economic security, dignity, and human thriving requires significant paradigmatic shifts, in addition to policy changes. In recent years, the parameters of an alternative economic worldview have begun to take shape, but vexing questions about what it will take to achieve “affirmative inclusion” remain. Neoliberalism did not invent gender and racial exclusion; both have been consistent features of the American economy since our nation’s founding. Correcting for centuries of structural racism requires far more than the provision of new public benefits — it necessitates rethinking more fundamental relationships to power, capital, and wealth. Similarly, as long as caregiving responsibilities are unequally distributed and accompanied by financial risk, gender equity will remain elusive.

Successful adoption of new economic frameworks requires deeper cultural work, namely surfacing — and rejecting — the explicit and insidious ways that society continues to deem some families as more “worthy” than others, and conveys economic privilege and disadvantage upon them on the basis of race and structure. In addition to the compelling recent analyses of the gender, race, and family inequities baked into the U.S. tax code, the think tank Family Story has outlined the ways that much of U.S. social policy is grounded in an ideology it terms “marriage fundamentalism.” Earlier this year, Representative Katie Porter revealed how pervasive such ideologies are by exposing the single parent penalty embedded in the American Rescue Plan, which set child tax credit income thresholds that were lower for single parents than for families headed by married couples.

For decades, the U.S. economy has been hamstrung by a form of virtue signaling that has become increasingly divorced from the reality of family life. If this moment is going to be different — if we are going to finally recognize the essential role that women’s paid work and caregiving both play in building a strong and robust economy and invest in the policies that enable and support their dignity and well-being — then we must wholeheartedly reject attempts to resurrect a vision of 1950s white, heteronormative, middle-class family life as a cultural ideal.

We are at a moment in which common-sense policies for an inclusive economic future are more politically viable than at any other moment in the past half-century. Turning the tide, especially for the millions of BIPOC women and caregivers who have borne the brunt of this economic crisis, requires political action. We can no longer allow this agenda to be thwarted by outdated cultural notions that have long prevented us from tackling the problems of our economy.

This is a modified excerpt from “Women’s Work: Key Policies and Paradigms for an Inclusive Post-Pandemic Economy,” by Julie Kohler, Stephanie Odiase, and Jessica Forden. This is the final part of a 4-part series on our report that addresses women’s labor participation, the structural social-political and economic factors that hold women back, and the path forward. You can read part 1 here.