It’s no secret that the pandemic has highlighted—and worsened—the childcare crisis in the U.S. In some states, childcare costs as much as, or more, than in-state college tuition, a high cost that can keep women in particular out of the workforce. Millions of women left the workforce completely at the start of the pandemic, and they haven’t been returning all that quickly; according to the August U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics job report, of the 235,000 jobs added that month, less than 12% went to women.
“At that rate, it’ll take nine years for women to get back to where they were in the workplace before the pandemic,” said Rep. Katie Porter at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. Porter has made childcare and policies to help parents a core part of her political work. If you’re a parent, particularly a mom whose work opportunities have been affected by the needs of her children, it’s clear how important policies like the Child Tax Credit can be. If you’re not a parent, or not one of those millions of women who are now behind in the workforce compared to pre-pandemic, your eyes may glaze over at talk of these kinds of policies. It won’t really affect you anyway, right?
To Porter, that couldn’t be more wrong. “When I think about things like paid family leave or childcare or even issues like pay equity, I don’t think about these things as primarily for women or even primarily for children,” she said. “I think about them as things for our economy, and I’ve never met anyone, young or old or retired or just starting out in their career…who doesn’t want to have a strong and stable and globally competitive economy. And we can’t do that if we’re having people exit the workforce because they can’t find childcare, because they can’t continue to work after they’ve given birth, because they’re not getting paid fairly in the workplace.”
The nine years it will take for women to get back to where they were in the workforce before COVID-19 is “nine years our economy simply doesn’t have,” she added.
Porter knows people may not understand this right away. Many policies to help workers are universal—we all pay into things like social security and workers compensation, and we’re aware that we’ll all benefit from those policies when we’re in need. With policies that are about women, or at least on the surface, that universal benefit isn’t as clear. “We often hear things like, ‘Why should we have to all be part of paid family leave? Why should we all have to contribute to childcare? Maybe we’re not going to have children, maybe we long [ago] had our children,'” she said. “The reality is those policies, just like workers’ compensation, just like a secure retirement, just like investing in college education—these are policies that benefit our entire economy.”
If there were policies like universal childcare or paid family leave that supported women to still be in the workforce, those job numbers would be higher, the stock market would have gone up, and our overall economy would be stronger.
Porter is fighting for these policies (often going viral with a video of her and her white board during a Congressional hearing) that benefit American families, and the country as a whole, and she’s in a unique position to do so: She’s a single mom of three, and before she became an elected official, representing the 45th Congressional District in Orange County, California, early in her career she was a law professor who focused on bankruptcy and consumer protection. “I am very comfortable talking about economics. I’m very comfortable talking about what families need to make ends meet,” she said. “And so I’m not allowing my voice in Congress to be limited to what are traditionally nominated as women’s issues, but instead, trying to show why some of those things are actually broad-based economic issues.”