How Care Infrastructure Supports and Enables Women’s Labor Force Participation

By Julie Kohler, Stephanie Odiase, and Jessica Forden

Woman sitting at her desk with a smile on her mouth on the computer with her child on her lap.

Caregiving is essential infrastructure and must be a foundational policy priority.

The policy barriers to women’s labor force participation in the U.S. are well-known. Unlike the vast majority of wealthy, industrialized nations, the U.S. lacks a public system of comprehensive early care and education, requiring families to privately purchase care for young children — at prices that have increased at rates double to inflation since the 1990s. And unlike nearly all other countries in the world, the U.S. does not provide paid leave to parents and other caregivers, guarantee health care, or, until the recent passage of the American Rescue Plan, provide significant tax credits or family allowances to help defray the costs of raising children.

The disparity between family benefits in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world is stark. From 1990 to 2010, the U.S. increased its number of government-mandated parental leave weeks from zero to 12 unpaid weeks. In contrast, the average increase in parental leave benefits among non-U.S. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries during the same 20-year period went from 37 to 57 paid weeks. Studies have estimated that about a third of the pre-pandemic difference between the rate of women’s labor force participation in the U.S. and other OECD nations during those decades can be attributed to these discrepancies between the U.S.’s and its wealthy, industrialized counterparts’ investments in policies that support caregiving.

Recent analyses have documented the economic benefits of child care for job creation, women’s earnings, and economic growth. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) estimated that capping child care expenditures at 10% of family income could increase overall women’s labor force participation to rates that would generate roughly $210 billion in additional GDP (The American Families Plan proposes capping child care expenditures to 7% of family income). A recent report by the National Women’s Law Center and Columbia University found that a universal child care system would help 1.3 million more women enter the workforce and earn a collective $130 billion across their lifetimes. A report by TIME’S UP calculated that a $77.5 billion per year investment in care sectors would support the creation of 22.5 million new jobs and spur $2.2 trillion in new economic activity over a 10-year period.

Politically, the reason for the U.S.’s lack of care infrastructure is clear: For the past half-century, a dominant political coalition reflecting the common bonds forged between neoliberal economics and social conservatism has blocked any form of public investment in the kinds of caregiving supports that enable women’s paid work.

In recent weeks, we have seen a resurgence of these 1970s-style cultural attacks, with some critics trying to characterize public investments in child care, in particular, as “class war,” as likely Republican Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance tweeted, “against normal people.” At the heart of this opposition is a belief in the superiority of a 1950s-style “traditional” two-parent nuclear family and deep resistance to public investments that support and enable women’s paid work. Such views may feel like a throwback to another era, but they remain politically powerful and a real threat to the kinds of policy responses the moment demands.

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted a re-examination of economic tenets that have held sway for decades. Now we must do the same with a set of pernicious beliefs about gender, race, work, and family that have stymied women’s economic progress, devalued women’s paid and unpaid work, constricted economic growth, and perpetuated racial and gender inequity. This economic crisis is also a family crisis, meaning that it is rooted in a nostalgic view of family life and prevents us from truly 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 part 2 of 4 in a series of blog posts about our report that addresses women’s labor participation, the structural social-political and economic factors that hold women back, and the path forward. Read the next part here.