Editor’s Note: Fatima Goss Graves is President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is Executive Director of MomsRising. Ai-jen Poo is Executive Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
Friday was a historic day. The Build Back Better Act, President Joe Biden’s sweeping care infrastructure and climate package, passed the US House of Representatives, marking a moment when our nation’s legislators finally took an important step toward addressing the devastating consequences of consistently leaving half of the country’s adults – and many of our children – behind.
In its current version, which now goes to the US Senate for consideration, the bill would provide several measures that could dramatically ease the burden on women and their families, with policies including but not limited to free pre-K for 3- and 4-year olds, enhanced child tax credits, federally funded paid family and medical leave, home- and community-based services, and provisions that cut childcare costs in half for most families. Its provisions, when taken together, promise to lower costs for working families, tackle inflation, help address systemic inequalities and boost businesses and our economy.
The bill’s passage also signals the beginning of an era in which Congress recognizes that women’s problems are America’s problems, and women’s successes are America’s success. Most importantly, it is an acknowledgment that our country will never realize its full potential if women and, in particular, women of color continue to be devalued, underpaid and left behind.
And let’s be clear: an economy that doesn’t work for women – who were nearly half of the entire paid labor force prior to the pandemic and who make the majority of consumer purchasing decisions – simply doesn’t work.
We are tired of economic frameworks that leave out women and families. We are done with policies that make invisible the unpaid and paid labor of women and caregivers that make our country run. Building bridges and trains alone doesn’t fully get America back to work when we don’t build the care infrastructure that enables bridge builders to go to work, including childcare, home- and community-based services, and paid family and medical leave.
The Build Back Better Act, which helps create this care infrastructure, must pass the Senate now – intact – and without delay.
The passage of the bill would be a commitment to the women who have sustained us through the pandemic, working the essential jobs we all relied on when shelter-in-place orders were in effect. It would be a commitment to women who have held the line in health care, when their jobs put them at risk of exposure to the coronavirus and transmitting it to their loved ones. And it would be a commitment to the women who stepped into caregiving roles at home when schools closed and nursing homes were evacuated.
The House passage of the Build Back Better bill follows a year of historic firsts for women in American politics.
In January, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman – and woman of color – sworn in as Vice President of the United States. Janet Yellen became the first woman to head the Treasury Department. Avril Haines became the first woman to serve as Director of National Intelligence. And a record 26.9% of seats in the US House and US Senate are now held by women.
Yet, as we watched historic progress being made by women in seats of power, we were unable to escape the continued reality of grave inequity for women in our economy.
In 2021, women have been leaving the workforce, losing jobs and experiencing burnout at greater rates than men – with Black, brown and immigrant women suffering from compounded health and economic harms. This as the pandemic continues to expose the gender inequities in our society and our economy. Women disproportionately shoulder caregiving responsibilities at home, and yet also comprise the majority of frontline health care workers. In addition, women are less likely to have jobs that enable them to work from home, and they are more likely to work low-wage jobs.
If we want to rebuild the economy, we must invest in women and families. If we want women to reenter the workforce, we must make childcare affordable for families, as well as expand home- and community-based care for people with disabilities and older adults so that family caregivers can stay in the jobs they need to support their families. If we want businesses to have the workers they need, we must invest in paid family and medical leave and extend the child tax credit. If we want to invest in physical infrastructure, we must invest in the care infrastructure that holds up every facet of our society and economy.
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If we as a nation want to succeed, we cannot leave half of our country behind.
The historic gains women made across our government must not be isolated to the halls of Congress or the White House – they must reach every home and workplace in the country. The working women of this country fought for this Congress; it’s time for this Congress, especially the Senate right now, to fight for them.