Build Back Better: A “Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity” to Solve a Universal American Problem

When asked how I navigated my career while being a single parent, I answer honestly: “Not well enough.” Now, legislation moving through Congress would make that struggle a little easier for working parents.

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This year, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on schools, daycares and nursing homes, women’s workforce participation hit a 33-year low. (Ketut Subiyanto / Pexels)

When I was a working single mother in Boston in the 1980s, finding a balance between work and parenting was a constant struggle. My son needed more from me, and I needed more help balancing the opportunities at work and my responsibilities as a mother—a balance that is still, for so many working parents, a question with no simple answer. 

It is the one question that I never feel I answer well when asked, as I often am, how I navigated my career while being a single parent. “Not well enough” is the most honest answer.

Legislation moving through Congress this week would make that struggle a little easier for so many working parents in America. And it’s about time! About 180 nations guarantee workers paid sick leave. The U.S. remains one of just 11 countries that doesn’t. 

The plan for paid leave is part of the Build Back Better Act, a $3.5 trillion reconciliation budget bill that could give all workers up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, beginning in June 2023. The vast majority of American voters—around 80 percent—are in favor of a national paid leave program. But its passage is not certain.

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Proponents including Melinda French Gates, Ai-Jen Poo, Gloria Steinem and many others are calling this moment a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

“It’s difficult in these divided times to find issues that Americans overwhelmingly agree on, but paid leave is one of them,”Gates noted in a recent op-ed she wrote for Time. “Probably because it solves a problem that is as universal as it gets. At some point in our lives, almost everyone who works will need time away from their job to take care of themselves or someone they love.

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Only nine states have paid leave programs. A national program is needed. 

Until then, millions of people every year will continue to face impossible choices between protecting their livelihoods and taking care of themselves and their loved ones. And since women bear the lion’s share of those caregiving responsibilities, it’s their careers that tend to suffer first and worst. Even before the pandemic made everything that’s hard about caregiving harder, one of the most frequent reasons women cited for leaving the workforce was “family responsibilities.” This year, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on schools, daycares and nursing homes, women’s workforce participation hit a 33-year low.

“Workers could tap the benefit to care for a new child, to recover from a serious illness, to tend to a sick family member or for certain military deployment reasons,” reports CNBC.

This week, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi have been working to get Democratic senators and House members to unite behind the infrastructure package and the economic package. Some centrist Democratic lawmakers say they would prefer to support only the infrastructure measure. Progressives have said they would only support the infrastructure bill if the larger social spending bill is also passed.

There is so much in the Build Back Better plan to support that is important for our future. In addition to paid leave, the bill includes programs that will begin to address the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and invest in America’s clean energy future. For working families, there is monetary relief for childcare, healthcare, education and prescription drug costs.

Take Action

I encourage you to take a closer look at the bill and call your representatives to raise your voice in support of the provisions that are most important to you.

I’m joining Melinda French Gates and other leaders to call on Congress to seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to pass a long overdue paid family and medical leave policy.Unless we act, this opportunity may slip away— with huge consequences for women, families, and the U.S. economy. As a former single mom, this issue is particularly close to my heart…. And it’s an issue with broad bipartisan support. How rare is that these days?!

Here are two steps you can take today:

  1. Call (202) 224-3121 to contact your members of Congress and urge them to keep paid leave in the budget package. Tell them we can’t have a budget that leaves women behind. Tell them paid leave must stay in.
  2. Spread the word.

Share this article with your friends and family. Forward it to three friends who care about this issue.

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About

Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.