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Building Back Better won’t be equitable unless we do this

The CEO of Pipeline Equity says regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, viewing legislation from the gender lens gives us an efficient means to analyze public policy and tap into the $3.4 trillion economic opportunity of gender equity.  

Building Back Better won’t be equitable unless we do this
[Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images]

Reconciliation. $3.5 trillion. Infrastructure. Childcare. It’s fair to say that most Americans know little about what’s going on in Congress at the moment. In fact, only one in ten Americans say they know “a lot of the specifics” of the Build Back Better plan currently circulating through the halls of power—a plan that itself reflects only a portion of the legislative energy emanating from Washington right now.

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This isn’t about chasing the day-to-day operations of partisan politics. Rather, it’s to expose the subtle ways gender inequity permeates into our most well-intentioned plans to rebuild the economy. To do that, let’s return to the original Build Back Better agenda. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, viewing legislation from the gender lens gives us an efficient means to analyze public policy and tap into the $3.4 trillion economic opportunity of gender equity.  

The gender lens exposes inequities in the Infrastructure Bill   

The original Build Back Better agenda includes three parts: the American Rescue Plan, the American Jobs Plan, and the American Families Plan. The American Rescue Plan is the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill that passed in March 2021. For practical purposes, the Rescue Plan is over and done. The American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan, on the other hand, haven’t left Congress yet. Perhaps that’s a good thing. 

The American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan copy and paste existing inequities into the future economy. Should these plans pass in their original forms, they would further widen the gender equity gap and trigger a $3.4 trillion write-off in economic growth. 

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Take the American Jobs Plan (aka the Infrastructure Bill) as an example. This plan would revitalize traditional infrastructure with a focus on clean energy and advanced technology. It’s hard to upbraid a blueprint that would create or save 15 million jobs all while propelling 21st-century innovation. Until, of course, you do some back-of-the-envelope math. 

Despite accounting for 57.5% of the 5 million jobs lost since February 2020, women stand to gain only 23.3% of the 15 million jobs created from the Infrastructure Bill. That’s a 34.2 point gender gap between the jobs lost during the pandemic and the jobs we’re choosing to bring back with the infrastructure package. We’ve barely started digging into the nuts and bolts of Building Back Better and can already find gender inequity hiding in plain sight. What happens when we keep digging? 

Building back better reinforces pay inequity

Now let’s look at the American Families Plan. This plan is projected to create 1.4 million jobs across the home health care and child care sectors. Since women account for 90% of all home health care workers and 95% of childcare workers, they stand to gain 93% (or approximately 1.3 million) of those new jobs. It sounds commendable until we factor in the hourly wages of these new jobs: $13.78 and $13.55, respectively.

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Any idea what the average hourly wage is for women’s jobs created by the American Jobs Plan? It’s $22.77, 1.7 times higher than the average wages of women’s jobs created by the American Families Plan. If both plans pass in their original forms, women will disproportionately gain jobs with barely livable wages. 

From an economic perspective, it doesn’t make sense to further entrench pay inequity on the heels of a pandemic that saw a five percentage point widening of the gender pay gap. In less than one year, the U.S. regressed to 1998 levels in terms of pay equity. That backsliding matters because the pay gap costs our country $512 billion in lost economic potential. 

Women are the breadwinners in 40% of US households with children. For Black households with children, the percentage jumps to 51%. These women’s wages determine the quality of healthcare, education, housing, and food their families receive. Their wages influence a range of economic decisions, from “Can I save for retirement?” to “Do I have enough capital to start a business or run for political office?” 

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Before the pandemic, women in the childcare and home healthcare sectors earned poverty-level wages. The average woman working full-time in childcare made $29,900 in 2018. The average Black woman made even less: bringing in $27,000 that year. And for the average Latina, annual wages amounted to $22,074. 

The over-representation of women and especially women of color in these industries only amplifies the pay inequity: women are 47% of the labor force yet represent 95% of childcare workers. Latinas are 8% of the workforce yet represent 20% of childcare workers. Black women are 7% of the workforce yet represent 19% of childcare workers.     

How to build back an economy with equity at the core

If we want to truly build back better, we also need to build back equitably. To move in this direction, I propose a two-pronged solution:

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  1. Remove gendered notions of physical infrastructure (i.e. the American Jobs Plan) being men’s prerogative and care infrastructure (i.e. the American Families Plan) being women’s.
  2. Invest in equitable upskilling to ensure the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan benefit all genders—and the economy. This will, in turn, bring 16.3 million people back into the workforce (8 million men and 8.3 million women) and embed equity into our economic recovery.

As it stands, nearly 100% of the 15 million jobs created by the American Jobs Plan will require some degree of upskilling. If we invested in upskilling equitably, we could ensure all genders have access to government-sponsored job creation. Absent equitable upskilling, women will gain only 23.3% of new jobs from this plan.

The numbers speak for themselves: equitable upskilling would close the 24 point gender gap in job creation under the American Jobs Plan by bringing 3.5 million more women (7 million total) back to work. That’s in addition to the 1.3 million jobs for women created by the American Families Plan. In monetary terms, we could reap a $168 billion return on our $11 billion investment by applying the gender equity lens to upskilling initiatives. 

Building back better—and equitably—represents a $3.4 trillion economic opportunity for the U.S. By upskilling people equitably, we can not only improve the productive capacity of our labor force. We can also usher in a more sustainable form of stakeholder capitalism, one that affords everyone the opportunity to step into a life the size of their dreams. 

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Katica Roy is the CEO and founder of Pipeline Equity.


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