Why Is the Senate Failing To Build Back Better? Blame Sexism

The Build Back Better Act is about the intangibles that undergird roads and bridges: childcare, clean energy, healthcare, education and taxing billionaires. In other words, it’s about people—children, the elderly, families, women. Especially women.  

President Biden on the campaign trail promoting the Build Back Better plan in on Wilmington, Del., on July 28, 2020. (Adam Schultz)

When President Biden celebrated passage of the infrastructure bill with a walk across a creaky, rusty bridge in New Hampshire, it sent a loud signal about what’s to come. Men in hard hats and orange vests, repairing the hardware that enables the economic engine to keep humming. Cars and trains and trucks and bridges—and jobs for men.

Indeed, it’s likely that 90 percent of the new jobs will go to men, laboring in construction, energy and transportation.  

Not to be flippant: Our physical infrastructure has been crumbling for decades, and it’s essential to shore it up and make it functional; and it’s an excellent way to put people to work in decent jobs, with real skills. We do, indeed, need bridges that don’t collapse and roadways that stay open during snowstorms.

But the truth is that the new bill provides only half of the whole picture of what we need. The “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act” did not, and does not, stand alone; it has a twin, in the form of the Build Back Better Act, which is just as (if not more) important. This bill invests in the deeper, more profound infrastructure of our economy—the framework that enables people to go to work, prevents our landscape from going up in flames, provides adequate healthcare to our people, and, after decades of neglect, seeks to strengthen the middle class.

So why is the Build Back Better Act coming into 2022 looking tattered, diminished, and, perhaps, headed for the trash bin?

Well, let’s call it: BBB is not first about men, and the work of men, and the Business of America. Instead, it’s about the intangibles that undergird the roads and bridges: childcare, clean energy, healthcare, education and taxing billionaires. 

In other words, it’s about people—children, the elderly, families, women. Especially women. And the truth is that we don’t value women’s work in the same way that we value men’s work. This is true both for the work, and for the women. On the one hand, jobs that involve tasks typically considered “women’s work” (such as caring for children and elders, cleaning, cooking) pay less and offer fewer rewards and benefits—even when these jobs require high levels of skill, education and training. And it’s true of women at work doing the same jobs as men: Women are paid less in the same jobs, just as men doing “women’s work” jobs are paid more.

In short, we don’t value women, women’s work, and families in the same way we value men in hard hats.

House Speaker Pelosi (D-Calif.) is joined by other House Democrats in July 2021 to discuss investing in “human” infrastructure, including universal pre-K and extensions to the child tax credit, free community college, expanded in-home caregiving for the disabled and elderly, and more. (Instagram)

This is certainly nothing new; previous efforts to invest in the economy largely focused on the work of men. The New Deal neglected childcare and home care workers. Domestic workers are still excluded from federal labor law, opening the door to abuse and under compensation. The last major push to fund universal childcare was vetoed at the last minute by President Richard Nixon in 1971 amid fears of desegregation and communist infiltration, as well as the ethos of keeping women in their place.

While the last 50 years have seen some advances toward progress and equity, we still regularly bump into roadblocks on the way forward. And the pandemic certainly changed the terrain for millions of us.

It should also be said that it’s not just about gender—it’s also about class (as the wealthy have seen huge gains during the pandemic while most people have lost ground), and, importantly, race. 

BBB seeks to invest in our families and our communities, but the reality is that it would benefit women disproportionately, and it would benefit working women and women of color even more so. Black, brown and immigrant and refugee women do much of the work that would get a boost from the bill (in the workforce and in the home). Elderly people of color, who have faced decades of structural barriers to accumulating wealth, would benefit from expansions of Medicare. Communities of color would benefit from investments in education; in cleaning up toxic energy sites; in more affordable housing; in nutrition supports.

BBB is long overdue, as it seeks to right wrongs that have dwelled for far too long, and swollen to become outsized for millions of families. When people voted for President Biden, they voted for this kind of change: resetting the rules to help families over corporations.

Finally, BBB is not just about what’s right. It’s about what’s necessary to keep our country from falling apart at the seams. If we don’t mitigate climate change now, climate disasters will become more frequent, and more deadly and destructive. If we don’t build a strong childcare system, parents won’t be able to go to work, and we will lose skills and experience, as well as huge chunks of the labor force.

Without BBB, we’re losing not just a move toward equity, health and well-being—but also the chance at lasting prosperity.

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Mary Babic is the associate director of Oxfam America’s U.S. programs.