Editor’s note: Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C., where she focuses on paid family and medical leave and other work-family policies that advance gender equity, race and the economy. She has repeatedly testified before Congress on the United States’ need for paid vacations and other policies that support women’s labor force participation and earnings. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
Over the past three years, several catalytic events should have opened the door to new, permanent political investments in families and a rewriting of the rules to promote justice and equity between gender, race and the economy.
Health, health and economic challenges triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The racial justice reckoning that brought to light the systemic injustices and biases that prevent full economic opportunity and fair treatment for people of color. A historic number of workers’ strikes and industrial actions. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, limiting women’s reproductive health decisions.
All of this raises questions about power, the role of government, and the need to rebalance what is public and what is private to maximize opportunities for families and the strength of the economy. Now, as Congress heads home for the holidays, there is progress.
After years of work, as part of the year-end omnibus package, lawmakers have just passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a measure allowing pregnant women to request reasonable accommodations such as carrying a bottle of water, or to sit rather than stand, to protect their health and the health of their pregnancies – a right that other people with temporary physical limitations have had for years.
It is estimated that 2.8 million working women will become pregnant each year, and around a quarter of a million are denied or do not seek the pregnancy accommodations they need. This law will help change that.
Congress also finally closed the loopholes in current legislation through the PUMP Act, guaranteeing space, time, and privacy for nursing workers in all jobs; before the passage of the PUMP law, approximately 13 million women of working age were excluded from the current provisions concerning nursing mothers.
Both measures were passed as amendments to the $1.7 trillion year-end omnibus spending bill that passed the Senate on Thursday. He is now going to the floor of the House on Friday before a midnight deadline.
Perhaps these important and long-awaited victories can herald a sea change. Until now, work, family and care issues have been largely treated as private by some policy makers, despite overwhelming public support and the multiple types of value brought by public investments in policies such as paid leave, child and elder care and family economic security. Caregiving is treated as a private responsibility, but lack of investment has major public consequences.
Most of the time, families have to find childcare or care for older and disabled relatives on their own, which affects the ability of caregivers – mainly women – to work. Professional caregivers are underpaid and undervalued, which creates instability and insecurity among caregivers.
Access to paid sick or family and medical leave is largely a matter to be settled between employers and employees rather than guaranteed for the vast majority of the workforce, creating huge disparities and implications for individual and public health, economic security, and the strength of the U.S. economy as a whole.
Meanwhile, tax credits for families with children are only available once a year, creating challenges for parents who have to buy shoes and clothes for their children, pay for band uniforms and field trips, or even putting food on the table, despite studies showing how temporary advances and Child Tax Credit (CTC) increases during the pandemic have reduced child poverty and improved well- to be families.
The reality that the challenges of family work and care are seen as private comes on the heels of Dobbs, who paradoxically took private decisions on abortion and reproductive issues out of heightened public debate, after nearly 50 years of case law protecting reproductive health choices as part of every American’s constitutional right to privacy.
Never before in the lives of most people alive today have medical choices been so limited and obscenely scrutinized, with particular harm to women in the southern United States, where access access to abortion is most limited, and for poor women and women of color whose mothers and children have less access to health care and who face greater risks associated with childbirth.
We are in an upside-down world where what is now public should be private, and what has long been considered private “to grab yourself by your boots” must be considered a matter of public interest and investment for women, families and the country to prosper.
Congress’ year-end omnibus spending package might help a little. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act will be extremely helpful to millions of pregnant and breastfeeding women in the workforce. It’s literally the least Congress can do to support healthy pregnancies and babies. Increased spending for the Comprehensive Development Grants for Child Care and Head Start will help shore up the existing child care system.
But important work has not been done in this Congress. The omnibus package has failed to restore the CTC improvements that have helped so many families during the pandemic, despite the valiant efforts of congressional advocates and champions. Political fights earlier this year have failed to deliver the transformational investments in paid family and medical leave, child care, and home and community care that President Biden proposed and the House of Representatives passed in November. 2021 in the Build Back Better Act.
This most recent Congress has done other important things that show the federal government can do good – and perhaps that gives hope for the future, as success can breed more action.
The Democrats’ U.S. bailout included temporary investments to bolster child care and home care providers, reduce care costs for families, and provide families with more money and more flexibility through to advanced and improved CTC. Decades of infrastructure legislation have been crafted and passed with bipartisan support invested in roads, bridges, technology and more, because physical infrastructure – unlike healthcare infrastructure – is considered a public good.
And Democrats in Congress also made historic investments this year in health care and clean energy and some tweaks to make the tax code fairer in the Cut Inflation Act. Earlier this month, Congress also passed legislation protecting the right of LGBTQ people to marry and did so on a bipartisan basis, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
So maybe there is a way forward. It’s time to revisit the “free market family,” to use a term coined by University of North Carolina law professor Maxine Eichner. The idea that family care and family support are personal or private matters, or subject to individual negotiation with employers, has long been perpetuated by the private sector, wealthy libertarians and conservative ideologues.
But the free market has failed families and the economy, and it must be overtaken by the clear need for new systems that support workers, families, and the workforce as a whole. The evidence is unequivocal: investments in care boost the economy and strengthen families; when families have greater economic stability, children and parents are healthier and have better outcomes.
After nearly three years of uncertainty for families due to the pandemic, and a fall season that saw a record number of parents out of work due to care needs or illness, an increase in economic hardship for families earlier this year after historic cuts, we should celebrate the victories of pregnant and nursing workers.
But much more is needed. Policymakers should start 2023 by carefully considering how public investment can better support families – and workers who deserve better should demand they do so.