Editor’s Note: Katherine Clark is the US representative for Massachusetts’ 5th Congressional District, where she has served since 2013, and the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus. Fatima Goss Graves is president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors. View more opinions at CNN.
In five short, devastating months, the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the inequities at the heart of America’s economy and our society. Entire workforces are being asked to sacrifice their own safety – and even their lives – to keep the economy running.
Even those lucky enough to work from home are often simultaneously forced to serve as teacher and caregiver with little support, dwindling savings, and no certain timeline for when this will all be over.
For millions of women, that timeline could in a sense stretch for the rest of their lives and the lives of their daughters. Why? As tens of millions of newly unemployed people begin to look for work to replace their disappeared jobs, families are trapped: they need the time and space for the “full-time job” that is a job hunt – the hours on the internet, the filling out of applications and talking to prospective employers – and they need to care for their children.
This puts women in a bind. Unless Congress acts, the advances of women workers over the last 50 years will be jeopardized, blocking women from the workforce and denying our daughters a chance to reach their full potential.
In the month of April alone, the 10 million jobs secured by women since the Great Recession were completely wiped out, and industries staffed primarily by women, like food service and retail, are facing a cataclysmic collapse. This includes 1 in 4 child care workers – 9 out of 10 of whom are women who earn an average of $11 an hour.
Child care providers have either been forced to close their doors or remain open with little support to ensure the safety of their workers and the children they care for.
The pain faced in the child care sector will serve as a double penalty for the economic future of women, affecting not just the low-paid workers who care for our children – a disproportionate number of whom are women of color –but the women dependent on them to pursue their own livelihoods.
Congress has two bills in front of it – the Child Care is Essential Act (CCEA) and the Child Care for Economic Recovery Act (CCERA) – that will provide desperately needed funds to help these providers survive the pandemic and once again serve as the backbone of our nation’s economy when it’s safe to fully open up.
These two bills are slated for votes this week in the House.
The CCEA will create a $50 billion Child Care Stabilization Fund to allow providers to remain open to serve essential workers, pay their workers if they are forced to close, and help alleviate tuition for working families during this unprecedented crisis.
But America must also support the long-term potential of women and girls by making child care more affordable.
The CCERA would expand tax benefits for workers and employers, increase child care funding to states, provide funding for child care for essential workers and $10 billion to improve child care facilities and infrastructure.
Decades of participation in the workforce by women have shown mothers are the most likely to struggle to find new work after enduring a layoff, and the mass closure of restaurants, retail shops, and many other businesses will mean there are few jobs to which they can return.
If Congress allows the child care system to collapse, it is women who will pay the price.
The vast majority of single mothers working in the food and service industry – including 8 out of 10 who worked as waitresses are now unemployed through no fault of their own and to the detriment of their children and their future stability.
Young women and girls are watching this moment very closely. Whether they are on a mother’s lap while she conducts Zoom meetings or graduating from high school and college into a historic level of national uncertainty, this vibrant generation of girls are keenly aware of how we as a society are valuing women in this time of crisis.
A new generation of American women will be defined by how we strengthen the position of women as workers and mothers, enabling them to pursue dreams professional and personal on equal footing with men.
The response from Congress so far has sought to address the immediate economic crisis. Expanding access to paid sick and family leave, stabilizing access to housing and nutrition support, and putting money directly in the hands of the people have all been critical measures to ensure Americans can stay safe while providing the necessities to their families.
But even this ambitious agenda is outpaced by the long-term devastation to the child care sector that will hinder the potential of an entire generation of women.
American women are well-acquainted with the sacrifices they have been forced to make as workers and as mothers in these past few months. By protecting our nation’s child care industry, Congress can ensure we build a strong economy that includes and honors their work.