Our economy is starting to show signs of life, but is still not meeting hopes and expectations for a big bounce back. The main challenge, as evidenced by the latest jobs report, is that labor force participation remains stagnant, and people are not entering the workforce. This leaves companies struggling to hire, and our economic recovery stifled.
While there are many contributing factors, one distinct reason is a lack of agency in how to balance their work and caregiving responsibilities caused by a nonexistent care infrastructure around our country. Our nation’s caregiving structure was a house of cards prior to the pandemic, and it is in no way set up to provide the flexibility families need as they seek to return to work. To support rehiring and reentry into the workforce, we must institute long-lasting family- and business-friendly policies that help our economy, and our families, get back on track.
Every day, parents make important decisions about who is caring for their children—whether they can provide that care themselves, or if they will rely on the help of a family member, friend, or a child care professional. While some parents would prefer to stay at home during their child’s earliest years, for many, this is simply not an option. Prior to the pandemic, more than two-thirds of children under the age of five had all available parents in the workforce, and women made up a majority of workers.
These parents, working either out of necessity or choice, had the rug pulled out from under them during the pandemic. Since 2020, mothers with young children have left the workforce in staggering numbers.
The United States is the only OECD country that does not offer paid maternity leave, and one of only two that does not offer paid paternity leave. We also rank among the bottom three OECD countries in terms of public expenditures on early care and education. This results in just 20% of all workers having access to parental or family caregiving leave, including just 9% of workers in the lowest income quartile. And as many as one in three young children with working parents may lack access to child care in their communities, a gap which is especially pronounced in rural areas, while the high cost can be prohibitive for many families, particularly those with the lowest incomes.
This leaves parents without the flexibility they needed to make the right decisions for themselves and their family. It has also caused companies to clamor for qualified workers. This reality will have long-lasting implications on our economic strength and on the health and success of families.
A new analysis by the US Chamber of Commerce found the inability to hire qualified workers is the most critical and widespread challenge businesses are facing. Over 90% of state and local chambers of commerce say worker shortages are holding back their economies, and in several states and industries, including education and health services, there are fewer available workers than available jobs. Similarly, one in four small business owners we surveyed said their most significant challenge in the shift to working from home was their employees’ caregiving responsibilities—the second largest concern behind a decline in revenue.
Mercifully, policymakers recognized these shortcomings and provided roughly 10 weeks of emergency paid family leave for parents facing school and child care closures during the pandemic. Our data shows that almost three in four (71%) caregivers said this helped them continue to work, while those who were not working or working less said paid family leave would make them more likely to return to work or to work more. Additionally, lawmakers made historic investments in child care for working parents. States can use this funding to help child care be more accommodating to the changing nature of work.
But these are temporary policies, couched in terms of responding to the pandemic. To ensure businesses can be competitive, and parents can return to work, we must continue to work across the aisle to build a care infrastructure that works better for everybody. Both President Biden and Trump prioritized these issues. Organizations like the Business Roundtable are supportive of nation-wide paid family leave efforts, while the Chamber of Commerce is calling for expanded access to child care to help our economy recover.
Returning to the status quo is unacceptable. The pandemic has brought to light our inadequate system of supports for working parents. We are in a pivotal moment. We can pursue bipartisan policies to support paid family leave and child care that ensure our economy can recover and thrive, or we can revert to our inadequate pre-pandemic structure. To bring women back into the workforce, fill jobs, and thrive in the post-pandemic economy, we must build effective and lasting child care and paid family leave infrastructure. Our country’s future depends on it.
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