Women Workers Can Help Rebuild the U.S. Economy—If We Can Solve Their Care Challenges

It’s time the U.S. fully bring caregivers into the workforce in an equitable way.

U.S. manufacturing is experiencing a rebound, with companies adding workers amid high consumer demand for products. The rebound is largely a product of the pandemic recession and recovery. (Nitat Termmee / Getty Images)

In February, the Department of Commerce announced that companies seeking $150 million or more under the CHIPS and Science Act would have to guarantee the availability of high-quality childcare for workers. While women’s rights and care advocates celebrated the move, others argued it was a distraction from the real goal of the CHIPS Act. The Department of Commerce defended this built-in childcare requirement, arguing it was essential to grow the supply of workers available to new factories.

This acknowledgement that the availability of care is essential to many potential workers’ ability to take a job is a welcome change from a century of policies assuming every worker had an unpaid caregiver at home handling any care responsibilities. But, it’s just a start.

If we are serious about lessening the effects care responsibilities have on caregivers’—and in particular women’s—workforce participation, we need a more robust suite of policies. 

The United States has significantly fewer supports for caregivers than our peer countries. We lack paid family leave and public childcare. Our long-term care infrastructure is a mix of private and public, means-tested programs. Persistent low wages across the care industries have ensured that supply is unstable and insufficient. As a result, families have long been left to patch together care solutions, straining their budgets and their time. Many have had to rely on long stretches of unpaid labor from family members, usually women. The pandemic, of course, exposed the starkness of this situation when care facilities shut down for months. 

Families have long been left to patch together care solutions, straining their budgets and their time.

Because women are consistently the ones who step out or back from the workforce to meet their families’ care needs, women in the U.S. have relatively low labor force participation rates. Women’s labor force participation in the United States first peaked in the early 1990s; it then declined slightly but steadily for the next two decades, and only in the middle of the 2010s did it begin to rise again. Due to the remarkable post-pandemic job market, it is now just above its 1990s peak. But that peak remains well below the women’s participation rates of other countries. 

This means that there is an untapped supply of potential workers available to critical industries if we can solve their care challenges. As the CHIPS rule suggests, this pool of potential workers should be of special interest to the manufacturing sector, which the  Biden Administration has committed to regrowing within the United States. Women currently make up only 30 percent of the manufacturing workforce, so bringing women who are out of the workforce entirely into manufacturing could significantly expand the labor pool. The CHIPS Act seeks to aid with this labor force expansion by getting companies to invest in childcare for their workforce. 

But for the nation to fully bring caregivers into the workforce in an equitable way, much more is needed. 

1. Care can’t be tied to an employer.

First, childcare must be broadly available to all regardless of connection to a particular employer. To truly enter and stay in the workforce, caregivers need to be assured of a stable source of care; they can’t be worried that childcare will disappear if an employer leaves town. As importantly, tying care to an employer can leave workers overly dependent on their employer and thus make it difficult for them to have job mobility or to defend their rights in the workplace. A public childcare option can bring caregivers into the workforce without deepening employers’ power over their workers. 

2. Aging parents and loved ones need care too.

Second, we need to acknowledge that childcare is not the only caregiving responsibility that decreases women’s attachment to the workforce. As parents and loved ones age or when family members have disabilities that require consistent care, women are nine times more likely than men to step back from the workforce. Investing in our long-term care infrastructure to ensure accessible, affordable, high-quality care is thus also essential to bringing more women into the workplace. 

3. Create work pathways.

Third, we must recognize that decades of inadequate care infrastructure have led many caregivers to leave the workforce for extended periods that in and of themselves make it difficult for them to return to a job.

To bring women fully into the workforce, we must create on-ramps to help those driven out of the workforce return. There is precedent for this. In the 1970s, there were state and federal programs to help “displaced homemakers”—women who had been out of the workforce and then lost their source of economic support through divorce or death of a husband—find jobs and receive workforce training.

Something similar might be done today to give women who have been forced out of the workforce by caregiving responsibilities special pathways back into the workforce through newly expanded industrial sectors.

There is an untapped supply of potential workers available to critical industries—if we can solve their care challenges.

Access to care should not be tied to a job, but access to a job is often tied to access to care. When caregivers find themselves without access to care either because care options simply do not exist or because the prices are too high, they may leave the workforce. These interruptions, even if intended to be short, often make it difficult to return to the workforce.

The long-term consequences of these care-driven departures from the workforce on individual women have been well documented and help drive a persistent gender wealth gap. One study estimated that women over 50 who exit the workforce for caregiving reasons lose $324,044 in income and benefits over their life. Equally important, there are long-term consequences for the nation’s economy and its ability to grow. At a moment of historically low unemployment, when we are trying to rebuild entire sectors of the economy, it is essential that we build the public care programs needed to support a larger and more stable workforce.  

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Suzanne Kahn is the managing director of research and policy at the Roosevelt Institute.