“If we are not addressing the health needs of women, the policies that allow women to work, we are not going to be able to restore the health of communities, families and our economy,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) told Ms.
This article is part of a longer feature piece in the Winter 2021 issue of Ms.—”A New Era for Women”—breaking down President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’s promise to “build back better” on women’s rights to health care, economic security and physical safety. Check back every Wednesday for new installations of this series, or get caught up here. And become a member today to read the entire issue—through our app and in print.
In The Biden Agenda for Women, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have pledged to pursue an “aggressive and comprehensive plan to further women’s economic and physical security and ensure that women can fully exercise their civil rights.” It’s part of the Biden blueprint to “build back better,” and after four years of the Trump administration’s destructive roll-backs of women’s rights, it’s about time.
The Biden-Harris administration has already established its ambitious agenda for advancing women’s rights in areas such as health care, reproductive rights, economic security, family life, education and gender-based violence. With this plan in mind, Ms. spoke to leading policymakers, advocates and activists to learn what women can expect—and hope for—in 2021 and beyond.
“The pandemic has really highlighted … the inequalities … the precarity of women’s work,” Rep. Katherine Clark (D- Mass.), the newly elected assistant speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, told Ms. “Biden has a deep commitment and understanding that if we are not addressing the health needs of women, the policies that allow women to work, we are not going to be able to restore the health of communities and families and we will never be able to restore the health of our economy.”
Federal and state governments have provided only spotty programs to address the vast need for high-quality, low-cost child care. The resulting burdens have fallen disproportionately on women, who still do most unpaid household labor and child care. A 2016 study from the Center for American Progress found that a woman in her 20s who leaves the work force for five years to care for her young children earns nearly 20 percent less over her lifetime.
But what good option do women have? Child care is expensive, costing roughly double the price of a year’s tuition at an in-state public university and up to 37 percent of a single parent’s household income.
The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the care crisis. With child care centers and schools closed, women have once again stepped up to do the unpaid labor of caring for society’s youngest members.
And the economic impact is stark: According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, roughly 865,000 women had dropped out of the labor force in September alone compared with 216,000 men, with one in four women citing a lack of child care as the reason. In January, a staggering report from the National Women’s Law Center revealed that 100 percent of the jobs lost in December were women’s jobs, with women losing 156,000 jobs and men gaining 16,000.
The pandemic has dealt a devastating blow to the U.S. child care sector, which was already incapable of supporting all families; hanging in the balance now are 4.5 million child care slots that could be lost permanently. Women will likely feel the impact for decades.
Biden and Harris have pledged to make “substantial investments in the infrastructure of care in our country,” including high-quality, affordable child care for all families; free, universal preschool for 3- and 4- year-olds; and increased access to after-school, weekend and summer programs. They are demanding for the U.S. what most other advanced economies already have—a comprehensive national program for child care and paid parental leave.
Fewer than one in six U.S. workers have access to paid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a sick family member. Biden and Harris want to guarantee that all workers have access to up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, can earn seven days of paid sick leave (although a better policy would provide two weeks of sick leave) and have fair and flexible schedules so they can more easily manage their families and careers.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business leaders around the country, including local chambers of commerce, are coming forward and saying we need help with child care. I think it has taken something as devas- tating as a pandemic that exposed all these frailties of our systems,” Clark told Ms., adding that for businesses, “there is a shift in understanding that this is fundamental infrastructure, that we can no longer treat it like a private decision between families and child care providers. That investing in child care providers and tackling the affordability and accessibility issues are going to be key to keeping a workforce so that we can reopen our restaurants and our businesses, whether they’re on Main Street or in big corporations. If we don’t do it, we won’t recover. We have to push past outdated paradigms about what child care is and recognize it as a fundamental girder of our economy.”
For older adults and people with disabilities and their caregivers, Biden and Harris plan to expand options for long-term care services, increase Medicaid funding to pay the full cost of care and offer support for informal caregivers—often female family members or loved ones who do this work unpaid—including tax and Social Security credits. For home care workers and early educators, the administration pledged to increase pay and benefits, and ensure stronger legal protections and the choice to join a union and collectively bargain. Voters also support these changes.
A recent survey from Time’s Up revealed that more than two-thirds of Biden-Harris voters categorize care policies as very important, as do a plurality of Republican voters.
“In order to have a strong economy and to not just go back to the status quo that never properly acknowledged and supported women in our economy and families, we have to build something that is more inclusive,” Clark said.
“Whether it’s the environment, women’s rights, economic justice—on every issue the Trump administration [came] down on the side of the powerful,” said Sunu Chandy, legal director of the National Women’s Law Center. “What we are looking for is a government that will be helpful to the people.”
The economic security prong of the Biden-Harris agenda for women includes fighting for equal pay and better wages for women; ending pregnancy discrimination and sexual harassment in employment; supporting child care, paid family leave and sick leave; and supporting student debt relief and affordable educational pathways for women to enter higher-paying professions.
The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, but 58 years later women still earn, on average, only 81.5 cents on the dollar earned by men for full-time work. The gap is even larger when fringe benefits, salaries and self-employment income are included in a more comprehensive calculation of the earnings gap. When the authors of a Stanford University study did just that, they concluded that women actually earn just 57 percent of men’s earnings.
One reason the gender wage gap has persisted for so long is that the Equal Pay Act is a weak law that is inadequately enforced. Biden and Harris strongly support the Paycheck Fairness Act—reintroduced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) in 2019—which would strengthen the ability of employees to challenge discriminatory pay practices and hold employers accountable.
Biden and Harris have promised to strengthen federal enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws. They will increase the number of investigators, litigators and enforcement actions and require midsize and large employers to collect and disclose compensation information by race, gender and ethnicity to the federal government, thereby increasing pay transparency.
Biden and Harris will work to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 across the country—indexing the minimum wage to the median hourly wage—and covering more workers, including farmworkers, domestic workers and people with disabilities. They have pledged to eliminate the tipped minimum wage, which makes restaurant servers vulnerable to sexual harassment, and to pass the National Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to grant domestic workers basic labor protections.
Biden and Harris also vowed to make it easier for workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, and to expand pay and benefits for underpaid jobs that are disproportionately filled by women.
The Biden-Harris platform for women’s rights also supports stronger laws against pregnancy discrimination and enforcement of prohibitions on sexual harassment in the workplace.
“A recent National Women’s Law Center study showed that more than one in five women described how sexual harassment had a devastating impact on their economic well-being,” said Latifa Lyles, vice president for advocacy and survivor initiatives at Time’s Up. “Economic survival is in the balance for so many people. We know that retaliation for reporting is rampant. People are feeling unsafe at work, particularly women of color. The administration has an opportunity to prioritize safety.”
Check back every Wednesday for new installations of this series, or get caught up here.
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