Working moms have heard it all before: “Be flexible. Are you reaching out to your support network? Do you make and freeze healthy meals in advance? Have you tried using a spreadsheet to stay organized?” We’re made to feel that every time we fall short in achieving the mythical work-life balance, it’s because of personal failures. And the pressures on moms have only gotten worse during the coronavirus pandemic.
But the lesson from covid-19 is not that moms aren’t doing enough to juggle. Instead, it is that even during this national emergency, moms are being asked to bear more than their share. The coronavirus has placed greater economic and family burdens on women than men, and we should remind ourselves that it is systemic shortcomings, not individual issues, that make it difficult for many women to participate fully in our labor force.
During this pandemic, women have lost their jobs more rapidly and are being re-hired more slowly. Many of the industries shut down—hospitality, education, and non-essential health services, for example—predominantly employed women. Now, as we face the possibility of state and local governments cutting jobs due to lost tax revenue and lack of federal support, it’s again women who will disproportionately face layoffs.
Women who have kept their jobs—either as essential workers or through telework—have had to grapple with school closures and the unavailability of childcare. Women tend to bear more responsibility for housework and childcare, even in heterosexual couples that self-report an equal division of labor. So in the switch to remote learning and shuttered summer camps, it’s no surprise that many women have found themselves shouldering additional childcare responsibilities.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t stretched women’s safety nets thin; it’s torn them apart. A recent study found that 1 in 4 women are considering leaving their jobs or scaling back career commitments because of covid-19. Last month, 4 in 5 Americans who exited the workforce were women.
The feeling of “I can’t do this” has undoubtedly been more present for moms this year, but we all know 2020 isn’t the first time we’ve thought the juggling impossible. Childcare costs have been climbing up and up for a while, and working families are spending a greater share of their incomes on it. As a share of GDP, the United States invests in childcare and early education less than half of what other industrialized countries do on average, and it’s families who pick up the tab.
The hurdles erected by covid-19 are even higher for women of color. Even before the pandemic, Black and multiracial parents were twice as likely as non-Hispanic white parents to quit or scale back their jobs due to childcare problems. Now, 86% of Hispanic households with kids and 66% of Black households with kids report that they’ve had serious financial problems due to covid-19. Compare this to the 51% of white households who say the same.
Despite all these challenges, working women make massive contributions to our economy. Our labor contributes upwards of $7.5 trillion to the American economy each year. Capping how much families spend on childcare at 10% of income could increase women’s economic participation enough to boost GDP by $210 billion.
The takeaway: economic recovery and expansion requires supporting women in the workforce.
We can start by investing in childcare—and soon. More than four in five childcare programs will not make it through the summer of 2021 without help. Our childcare system needs funding close to $10 billion a month to avoid permanent closures. While the House has passed legislation to provide much-needed emergency aid to shore up our nation’s childcare providers, the Senate has failed to act. Meanwhile, President Trump hasn’t even recognized this problem, much less suggested it’s a priority.
But make no mistake: while strengthening our childcare system is important pandemic policy, it’s also necessary public policy. If we don’t act, our ongoing childcare crisis will long outlast the current public health crisis. I introduced the Family Savings for Kids and Seniors Act last year, which would allow families to set aside more money pre-tax to go toward childcare. This limit, $5000 under current law, has not been adjusted for inflation since the 1980s. Joe Biden has a plan to guarantee universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds and invest in caregivers and early childhood educators, and we must hold our next president accountable for investing in a more equal, and therefore stronger, workforce.
Any working mom can tell you that life was hard enough before the pandemic. Today, as the coronavirus continues to attack the physical and financial health of the American people, it also serves as an unfortunate reminder of the devastation that happens when we fail to support working parents, especially women.
We’ve been flexible, we’ve called through our networks, we’ve done our meal prep, and we’ve color-coded our spreadsheets. It’s not enough, and it never will be—pandemic or not—until our leaders stop asking working moms to pick up the slack for their inaction and start investing in solutions.
Katie Porter represents California’s 45th District. She is the only single mom of young children serving in Congress.