Many employers across the country are pushing workers to return to the office.
This shift from remote work has triggered concerns among workers who are parents and caregivers. Who will watch their children and aging parents? Their loved one with a disability? How will they afford care workers?
Many Americans have put return-to-work plans on hold due to these concerns. According to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, over 7.5 million respondents attribute caring for a child who was not in school or daycare as the main reason they were unemployed. Outside of retirement, that means child care is the No. 1 reason that Americans are not working today. An additional 1.9 million cited the lack of eldercare.
Our economy has made substantial progress in recovering from the pandemic. Since the president took office, we have added over 3 million jobs. But we are still missing over 7 million jobs from before the pandemic.
As workers think about what economic decisions make sense for them and their families in coming months, we need to pay attention to the lack of caregiving services, which has burdened workers throughout the pandemic. This is no small issue—unavailable and unaffordable care is an economic crisis driving current workforce challenges across the country. But in reality, too little attention has been paid to the sources of the problem.
Our “care infrastructure” is in tatters. Even before Covid-19, the lack of child care cost Americans $37 billion annually in lost income and $13 billion in lost productivity for employers.
Without adequate care services, we cannot expect everyone who is a parent or caregiver to fully participate in the workforce. Among leading economies, the U.S. has the most productive workforce in the world—when it can work.
There is an entire generation of Americans in their prime working years caught between their job and caring for their children, elderly relatives, or both. For this “sandwich generation,” the financial strains and time requirements of caregiving can be personally and professionally crippling.
I know personally how critical finding affordable, trustworthy care for my children was to my career. Even today, my ability to be in the office each day is dependent on the caregiving team that watches my 90-year-old mother.
In recent decades, the care economy enabled women to work and pursue careers. But the supply of care services has not kept up with demand. One study found that the cost of child care caused a 13% decline in the employment of working mothers with children under the age of 5 from 1990 to 2010.
The pandemic has amplified this issue, turning it into a full-blown crisis. Since February 2020, nearly two million women have left the workforce, resulting in the lowest women’s workforce participation in over 30 years.
To fix this crisis, we need to make sweeping investments in the care economy. First, we need to make care affordable. Child-care spending grew 2,000% over the past 40 years as more women entered the workforce, while child-care costs have grown twice as fast as inflation since the 1990s. As a result, many skilled mothers are driven out of the workforce.
Second, we need to start with our care workforce. Millions of women, primarily women of color, work all day, every day, in the care economy. In taxing jobs, they’re typically making poverty wages. For far too long, these women have been unseen, underpaid, and undervalued. Major investments can bring dignity back to these jobs by providing better wages, benefits, opportunities, and support.
Third, we need to address the lack of quality care facilities. Even before Covid-19, 43% of parents reported struggling to find an adequate child-care facility. This has only gotten worse as massive underenrollment triggered by the pandemic forced 1 in 10 child-care centers to close permanently.
President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda addresses these issues by making historic investments in the care economy. I’m proud to champion them in every conversation I have with members of Congress and the private sector.
I’ve spoken with dozens of CEOs. They recognize the return on investment. At a recent event, Dara Khosrowshahi told me how turnover at Uber, often caused by caregiving demands, costs $4,000 in lost productivity per employee. Businesses understand and support what the president’s investments are trying to achieve.
It’s time for our federal government to create a safety net that extends beyond the largest corporations and allows small businesses, restaurants, and even sole proprietors to access affordable, reliable care services. Doing so is not just the right thing to do for U.S. families, but it’s also good for business, and it’s good for the economy.
An analysis from the Council of Economic Advisers in 2014 found that every $1 invested in child-care and early-education spending returns $8.60 in societal benefits. And raising wages of care workers ultimately puts money back into the economy.
As we emerge from the pandemic, our economic priorities cannot be stuck in the past if we want to build a competitive economy for the future. It’s time for Congress to address our care crisis so that Americans can finally return to work. At the end of the day, care investments aren’t just good for American families. They’re vital for American businesses and critical to the recovery of the U.S. economy.
Gina Raimondo is the 40th U.S. secretary of Commerce.
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