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The Critical Piece Missing From The American Jobs Plan

Against all odds, and to this writer’s satisfied surprise, 2020’s big sleeper story—the pandemic exodus of women from the workforce by the millions—has finally hit mainstream conversation. There’s a lot that you can chalk that up to, but we can at last actually discuss pressing national issues and consider the best response to them.

To that end, here comes the present administration’s American Jobs Plan. Designed to combat the pandemic economic fallout and its concomitant collapse of the job market, which are both still ongoing by degrees, it has the potential to reverse the staggering loss of employment women have faced over the last thirteen months. It almost reads like a Christmas list, full of ambitious proposals that women’s advocates have been pushing since the Bush administration: investment in care infrastructure, in education, in women-run businesses, and in affordable housing. What’s heartening about these proposals is how rooted they are in creating long-term structures that support women rather than just slapping down a band-aid to cover a bad news cycle. What’s disappointing about them is that none of them address, in practical, actionable ways, the treadmill of discrimination that’s been working overtime to exclude women from the recovery.

Let’s not hedge; there is good reason to be optimistic about the impact we can expect on real women’s lives by addressing foundational issues contributing to our departure from the job market, especially our woefully inadequate care infrastructure. Lack of access to affordable childcare was a driving force keeping women out of the workforce even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 eviscerated an already hollowed-out industry; by the middle of last year, we were already hearing stories from women who’d been fired or encouraged to resign precisely because they suddenly had children at home with them all the time. Even after industries dominated by women—like restaurants and retail—began reopening, millions of women who found themselves with no childcare options remained homebound. Rebuilding and expanding our childcare infrastructure has the very real potential to reopen the possibility of employment for (overwhelmingly working class) women whom circumstance has shut out.

This is an unalloyed good, at least in principle. When coupled with the American Families Plan’s childcare benefits for working families, it could provide a reliable basis for women to both return to work and stay there if they want to, insulated to a degree from the happenstance of fate and a society that still, at its heart, expects mothers to stay at home. But the fact of that expectation remains, and it’s one of the largest obstacles to employment women have to overcome before even being considered for a job. In other words, by itself, the American Jobs Act’s shoring-up of the critical infrastructure that enables women to join or rejoin the workforce can only go so far. After all, the presumption of women as caregivers is a primary reason that childcare is so central to our economic prospects in the first place. Even with this level of investment, the hard part will be (‘twas ever thus) dismantling that and convincing anyone to hire us at all. 

This is, to a degree, addressed by the plan’s outline for creating gender-equitable workplaces and strengthening women’s access to training and apprenticeship programs, and the administration’s push for $30 billion in federal investment for Black-, Brown-, and women-owned businesses is nothing to sneeze at. But one could be forgiven for having doubts about their impact unless accompanied by something more direct. Perhaps companies could receive subsidies, for example, for the number of women they’ve retained in leadership and hiring positions for at least two years, and studies examining why women have lower rates of employment and retention, which would then inform new rounds of policymaking, could be federally supported and independently performed.

At the end of the day, though, the solution isn’t going to be found in policy, or in the invisible hand of the free market, or in the availability of childcare. No, it’s going to be in the only place it can be: in ourselves and in our values. We’ve spent the last sixty years in the period of the greatest shift in social organization the Western world has ever seen. A decade ago, less than half the US population supported same-sex marriage; today, that number is over 70%. That same decade saw a massive expansion of support for the rights of transgender people. Interracial relationships were verboten in living memory. We are not a monolith etched with Viking runes, forever frozen in time. Change is possible, and it happens more at the cultural level as much as at the policy level. That will come with advocacy and attention, time and pressure, wind-up and follow-through on a movement that spotlights hiring discrimination against women as much as #MeToo spotlighted sexual predation. 

We can do it.

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