The Time to Care Is Now

Biden Administration, Caregiving, Equity, Paid Leave

By Sapna Mehta and Latifa Lyles

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession continue to ravage communities across the United States, and the lack of caregiving support is threatening the economic livelihoods of women and families. Women, particularly Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and immigrant women, lost 5.4 million jobs during just the first 10 months of the pandemic as women-dominated industries were hit the hardest by the pandemic and caregiving needs at home increased. As the exodus of women from the labor market demonstrated, the responsibility of care falls disproportionately on women who shoulder the majority of the unpaid work in the home. The job gains of the past summer did not offset all the job losses. Nearly 1.8 million fewer women are in the labor force than before the pandemic began, and many of these women left to fulfill caregiving needs. If the labor force had continued to grow at its pre-pandemic level, 2.3 million more women could be working now if the disruption had not occurred.

Our country’s caregiving crisis was exacerbated, but not created, by COVID-19. Even before the pandemic, when a caregiving need arose, working women, especially Black and Latinx women, faced impossible choices between caring for themselves or loved ones and making ends meet. The country cannot achieve an inclusive recovery or gender or racial equity without supporting the need to receive and provide dignified care. President Biden has proposed transformative public investments in care that include universal paid family and medical leave and robust investment in child care and home- and community-based services for older adults and people with disabilities that would get women back to work, support women of color and their families, and fuel economic growth and recovery.

Caregiving policies can revive the economy and reverse decades of sluggish economic growth. An analysis by TIME’S UP found that the caregiving investments proposed by President Biden would increase gross domestic product (GDP) by at least $330 billion (1.5%) — roughly $1,000 per person — due to at least 3 million women currently constrained by caregiving responsibilities joining the labor force in just the first year of policy implementation. Caregiving investments would also create an estimated 2.1 million new jobs, 1.6 million of which would be filled by women. These new jobs and growth in labor force participation would increase the nation’s tax revenue and increase our international competitiveness with other countries where women’s labor force participation is substantially higher — due in part to those countries’ more robust support for caregiving.

This boost to the economy is partly because caregiving policies make good business sense. These policies encourage employee retention, increase morale, boost business productivity, and support diversity and inclusion efforts. When employees know their loved ones are safe and effectively cared for, they can do their best and be fully engaged when they’re at work. As Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo recently stated, investments in care policies are critical to increasing the United States’ competitiveness on a global stage. “You cannot be competitive if women can’t productively engage in the workforce because they don’t have access to child care or care for their elderly loved ones. We can’t compete globally if we’re the only industrialized nation without paid family leave, which severely undermines our workers’ productivity.” The United States lags far behind our international partners when it comes to supporting workers with caregiving responsibilities and caring for our children, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

Looking at paid family and medical leave specifically, a TIME’S UP analysis shows that enacting a national paid leave proposal would generate $28.5 billion in national income and create 162,000 new jobs. Notably, some of the industries that would see the most job creation are food services, ambulatory health care services and hospitals, and retail, all of which are major employers of women and Black, Latinx and immigrant workers across the United States. A national paid leave program would also help improve job quality in these industries, though a comprehensive set of changes is required to fully address the structural inequities in the labor market. While caregiving has historically been seen as an individual responsibility, mainly placed upon women to provide paid and unpaid care, this estimate demonstrates the potential power of these investments to accelerate the economy and begins to reverse generations of systemic sexism and other barriers to economic mobility.

A strong paid family and medical leave program can help reverse the economic fallout of women leaving the labor force due to caregiving needs and increase women’s economic security and stability. Across family structures, Black and Latinx women play a critical role in providing for their families’ economic vitality. Sixty-eight percent of Black mothers and 41% of Latinx mothers are the primary breadwinners for their families, compared with 37% of white mothers. And yet, Black and Latinx workers are less likely to have access to paid leave than white workers. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides unpaid leave, 71% of Latinx workers, and 61% of Black workers aren’t eligible for FMLA or can’t afford to take unpaid leave. The lack of paid leave undermines the financial security of families, communities and our national economy, as households once reliant on women’s income can no longer make ends meet.

While the labor market is starting to see the return of some jobs that were lost earlier in the pandemic, the child care sector has yet to recover. Despite the rising cost of child care that makes it unaffordable for many families, child care work is one of the lowest paid professions in the U.S. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently stated, “Child care is a textbook example of a broken market, and one reason is that when you pay for it, the price does not account for all the positive things it confers on our society.” Research shows that equitable access to safe, high-quality early learning and child care is critical for young children’s healthy development and is vital to the labor force participation of parents — especially mothers. While most families experience child care challenges, these challenges are more acute for the lowest-income families, who spend an average of 30% of their household budget on child care. A significant investment in child care will enable mothers whose families who are most in need of their income to return to the workforce.

Child care and home care jobs have long been underpaid and undervalued because the work has historically been performed by women, and disproportionately by women of color and immigrants. Low wages and the poor quality of care jobs contribute to high rates of turnover and staffing shortages that make it difficult for people who need care to find it. Child care workers, many of whom have their own children to support, are twice as likely to be living in poverty as other workers. Nearly all child care workers are women, and Black and Latinx women are overrepresented in the child care workforce. A Black woman working full time, year round in the child care industry makes, on average, just under $27,000, and Latinx child care workers typically make only $22,000 annually. Nearly half of home care jobs are performed by Black and Latinx women who earn an average annual salary of just $25,000, often struggling to make ends meet while caring for the elderly and people with disabilities. The poor standards facing the care workforce are a lens into the reality of work for millions of women of color.

Even prior to the pandemic, women were dropping out of the workforce because they could not access home care for aging relatives or family members with disabilities. Families are now spending down to poverty to get support. This crisis will only become more acute as the nation ages. People overwhelmingly want to age and live in their homes and communities, and COVID-19 has exposed the risks of living, aging and receiving care in large congregate settings, like nursing homes and institutions. Investing in long-term supports and services can help ensure that dehumanizing facilities are not the only option for many families.

The pandemic has inflicted pernicious harm and exposed unconscionable vulnerabilities for women of color and their families. Investing in care will help address the economic and health crises that have devastated communities of color and help tackle the long, deeply painful history of systemic racism and structural sexism. An equitable economic recovery begins with investing in families and the workforce — dominated by Black, Latinx and immigrant women — that cares for families in the United States. President Biden’s proposal will transform care jobs into family sustaining jobs, and address longstanding racial exclusions in the labor market, while supporting economic opportunity and mobility for workers of color who provide care, and those who need it too. The time to #BuildBackBetter is now. Women cannot wait.