Opinion: The free market is failing American families. Congress just took a small step to fix that


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Editor’s Note: Vicki Shabo is a senior fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, DC, where she focuses on paid family and medical leave and other work-family policies that advance gender, racial and economic equity. She has testified before Congress multiple times on America’s need for paid leave and other policies that support women’s workforce participation and earnings. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion at CNN.



CNN
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Over the past three years, several catalytic events should have opened the door to new, permanent policy investments in families and a re-writing of rules to promote fairness and gender, racial and economic equity.

The health, care and economic challenges triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The racial justice reckoning that shone a bright light on systemic injustices and biases that prevent full economic opportunity and fair treatment for people of color. A historic number of worker strikes and labor actions. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, constraining women’s reproductive health decisions.

Vicki Shabo

These all raise questions about power, the role of government and the need to re-balance what’s public and what’s private to maximize opportunities for families and the strength of the economy. Now, as Congress heads home for the holidays, there’s progress.

After years of work, as part of the end-of-year omnibus package, lawmakers just passed the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, a measure to allow pregnant people the ability to request reasonable accommodations like carrying a water bottle, or sitting rather than standing, to protect their health and the health of their pregnancies – a right other people with temporary physical limitations have had for years.

An estimated 2.8 million working women will become pregnant each year, and around a quarter-million are either denied or do not ask for pregnancy accommodations they need. This law will help to change that.

Congress also finally closed gaps in current law through the PUMP Act, guaranteeing space, time and privacy for nursing workers in all jobs; prior to the passage of the PUMP Act, an estimated 13 million women of working age were excluded from current nursing mothers’ provisions.

Both measures were adopted as amendments to the $1.7 trillion end-of-year omnibus spending bill which passed in the Senate Thursday. It now goes to the floor of the House Friday ahead of a midnight deadline.

Perhaps these important and long-overdue victories can harken a sea change. Until now, matters related to work, family and care have been largely treated as private by some policymakers, despite overwhelming public support and the multiple types of value brought by public investments in policies like 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.

Families are mostly left to find child care or care for older and disabled loved ones on their own, and this affects caregivers – mostly women’s – ability to work. Professional caregivers are underpaid and undervalued, creating instability and insecurity in the care workforce.

Access to paid sick or family and medical leave is largely a matter to be worked out between employers and employees rather than guaranteed for the vast majority of the workforce, creating enormous disparities and with implications for individual and public health, economic security and the robustness of the US economy overall.

Meanwhile, tax credits for families with children are available only once a year, creating challenges for parents who need to buy shoes and clothes for their children, pay for band uniforms and field trips, or even put food on the table, despite studies showing how temporary advances to and increases in the Child Tax Credit (CTC) during the pandemic reduced child poverty and increased families’ well-being.

The reality that families’ work and care challenges are considered private comes on the heels of Dobbs, which paradoxically made private decisions about abortion and child-bearing matters of heightened public debate, after nearly 50 years of case law protecting reproductive health choices as part of all Americans’ constitutional right to privacy.

Never before in the lifetimes of most people alive today have medical choices been so constrained and so obscenely scrutinized, with harms especially to women in the southern United States, where abortion access is most limited, and to poor women and women of color whose maternal and infant health care access is less and who face greater risks associated with childbirth.

We’re in an upside-down world where what’s now public should be private, and what’s long been seen as “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” private must be seen as matters of public concern and investment for women, families and the country to thrive.

Congress’ end-of-year omnibus spending package might help a bit. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the PUMP Act will be immensely helpful to millions of pregnant and nursing people in the workforce. This is literally the least Congress can do to support healthy pregnancies and babies. Increased spending for Child Care Block Development Grants and Head Start will help to shore up the existing child care system.

But significant work was left undone in this Congress. The omnibus package failed to re-establish CTC enhancements that helped so many families during the pandemic, despite valiant efforts by advocates and congressional champions. Earlier policy fights this year failed to result in the transformational investments in paid family and medical leave, child care and home- and community-based care that President Biden proposed and that 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 that the federal government can do good – and perhaps that provides hope for the future, as success can beget more action.

The Democrats’ American Rescue Plan included temporary investments to shore up child care and home care providers, reduce care-related costs for families, and provide families with more money and more flexibility through the advanced, enhanced CTC. Infrastructure legislation decades in the making and passed with bipartisan support invested in roads, bridges, technology and more because physical infrastructure – unlike care infrastructure – is seen as a public good.

And Democrats in Congress also made historic investments this year in health care and clean energy and some adjustments to make the tax code more fair in the Inflation Reduction Act. Earlier this month, Congress also passed a law protecting the right of LGBTQ people to marry and did so on a bipartisan basis, something that would have been unthinkable even a couple of years ago.

So perhaps there is a path 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-level negotiations with employers, is an idea long perpetuated by the private sector, wealthy libertarians and conservative ideologues.

But the free market has failed families and the economy, and it must be overridden by the clear need for new systems that support workers, families and the workforce overall. The evidence is unmistakable: investments in care boost the economy and strengthen families; when families have more 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 the workforce because of care needs or illness, an increase in families’ economic hardships earlier this year after historic reductions, we should celebrate victories for pregnant and nursing workers.

But much more is needed. Policymakers should begin 2023 by taking a hard look at how public investments can better support families – and working people who deserve better should demand that they do.


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