At Work

As Biden pushes split infrastructure plan, working women see a make-or-break moment

Key Points
  • President Biden promised an infrastructure plan that makes good on a campaign promise to position caregiving as a core part of national infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt.
  • For working women who lost decades of labor force gains during the pandemic, permanent federal legislation on child care, parental leave and child tax credits, is seen as critical.
  • But Biden has pushed back the caregiving part of the infrastructure plan for now, and Rep. Katie Porter, a single mom with three children, tells CNBC that it is time to "Push President Biden" to keep his word.
From left, Reps. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., and Rep. Cynthia Axne, D-Iowa, attend the House Financial Services Committee hearing in Rayburn Building on December 5, 2019.
Tom Williams | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

If President Biden's infrastructure plan makes you first think of hard hats, roads and bridges — maybe in 2021, also wind, solar and electrical vehicles — you have not been paying attention as closely as many working women. On Capitol Hill, in the offices of congresswomen like single working mom and California Democratic Rep. Katie Porter, and among organizations that study the role of women in politics and women in the labor force, the Biden infrastructure plan is being watched as a make-or-break moment for recognition of the role of caregivers as core infrastructure in the nation's post-Covid rebuilding.

After seeing decades of gains made by women in the labor market erased by Covid-19, Porter and others say it is time for President Biden to follow through on his campaign promise to offer permanent federal help on issues of critical importance to working women, from paid parental leave, to more expansive federal child-care support, and permanent child tax credits.

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But it is not clear whether the opportunity will be achieved. The Biden administration's recent decision to focus on traditional projects in a first infrastructure plan and push back the caregiving infrastructure policy to a separate proposal at a later date, is an issue more Americans will need to speak up about, and it is not solely an issue for women, according to Rep. Porter, who spoke with CNBC's Becky Quick at the CNBC @Work Summit on Tuesday.

Building back better for working parents

"Going back to the usual for working parents … it wasn't very good," Porter said. "Unaffordable day care, long hours, strained relationships."

"We've seen President Biden adopt that language of "Build back better," not just with regard to physical infrastructure, roads or bridges, but also with regard to our care economy. But we've seen ... President Biden he's going to roll out the build roads and bridges, a traditional infrastructure, tomorrow. He said that the infrastructure relating to the care economy is going to be postponed until later, April or May."

In a worst-case scenario, splitting the infrastructure bill in two could result in less money, if any money, being left for a caregiving bill, at a time when votes are tight on Capitol Hill and there is less appetite for more spending, and looming battles over higher taxes to pay for infrastructure, as well. Though the Biden administration is talking about spending huge sums on caregiving as part of its economic proposals, Porter worries that by splitting up the infrastructure plans, a day could come when, "Golly gee, there's no money left to help make it possible for women to recover economically."

"I think we're at a real inflection point where we need to be pushing our president to deliver on the promise he made, which is that the care economy, an investment in the care economy is an investment in our nation's infrastructure because it's an investment in our nation's workforce," Porter said. "Childcare is just as essential to people being able to do their job as a road or a bridge to get them there." She added, "The people who do the important work of giving care, whether to seniors in nursing homes or child-care providers, these are infrastructure workers every bit as much as construction workers."

While women have increased representation in the sector, constructions jobs remain "disproportionately male," Porter said.

I think we're at a real inflection point, where we need to be pushing our president to deliver on the promise he made.
Rep. Katie Porter

The White House economic team is still working on the second infrastructure plan, focused on investments in health care and child care and plans to roll out that proposal sometime in April. The plan focused on infrastructure and manufacturing will be unveiled Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Covid bill did make progress on some caregiving policy goals, but the measures were not designed to last beyond the crisis period.

"There were clear provisions speaking to the longstanding inequities in the system," said Nicole Bateman senior research analyst at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, specifically, she added, for women and people of color. "That is a major win, but temporary." 

The $40 billion in additional funding for child care was a key part of Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid plan as policymakers look to keep the momentum going. Lack of access to affordable child care is a major barrier for women, and it reduces participation by women in the labor force.

Rep. Porter has been vocal on the issue of making childcare more affordable, recently reintroducing the Family Savings for Kids and Seniors Act, which would more than double the amount that families can set aside pre-tax for dependent care.

The amount has not been changed since Ronald Reagan enacted the law in 1986, even as the cost of child care has gone up by several hundred percent.

Porter introduced the bipartisan FAIR Leave Act to close a loophole in federal family leave policy that restricts the amount of leave some married couples can take, and has been vocal on the issue of paid leave.

"We've had the Family and Medical Leave Act in place since 1993, but if mothers and low-income individuals were in Congress at the time, it's hard to imagine it would have passed as unpaid leave," said Julie Kashen, senior fellow and director for women's economic justice at The Century Foundation.

The pandemic and the female labor force

The potential for once-in-a-generation change comes against the risk that the temporary imbalances in the workforce caused by Covid-19 turn into long-term setbacks. Without the right policy efforts, women may not recover to represent 50% of the workforce as they did before the crisis.

The representation of women in the U.S. labor force has retracted to a level not seen since 1988.

"We've gone backwards, almost a generation and a half, almost two generations in terms of female workforce participation," Porter said.

VIDEO22:0422:04
Women and Work in the New Economy – D-CA Katie Porter at CNBC @Work Summit

Experts say the pandemic also is a unique opportunity.

"I don't think we've seen an opening like this in generations and it is all made possible by the pandemic," said Nicole Mason, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

The road to career recovery is, by the nature of the labor market, going to be more difficult for women. Long-term wage gap pressures had been narrowing, but with millions of women out of the workforce for longer periods of time, it decreases their leverage in seeking fair wages when they attempt to return. The enforcement of laws over gender-based wage discrimination in the workplace has been weak, according to Brookings' Bateman. Women attempting to return to work also often face questions about child care and the number of children they have — questions Porter noted are illegal to ask.

"We've seen in research before, when things are going great it is the men who get to make the decisions. When time are tough, when people do not have enough, it's women who are told you have to find a way to make it work," Porter said. "Part of reaction to the pandemic is women being asked to shoulder the burden of figuring out what to do in the middle of a crisis and in too many cases that is leaving the workforce."

Rising power of women in Congress

The number of mothers with children in Congress is higher than ever before, but Congress is still gender imbalanced, with women representing only 1 in 4 offices. "We're still nowhere close to a truly representative government," said Jean Sinzdak, associate director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

But the math has improved.

"This is a big moment and huge opportunity for women in Congress to really make inroads on these policy issues," Sinzdak said. "Now for the first time there is some version of critical mass so they can't be ignored."

That is important because so many of the individuals to whom these issues are life-changing lack the power themselves.

"Lots of what we are talking about is people who don't have very much power. And the the children of these people," Bateman said.

Motherhood has been used to political effect before, from Sen. Elizabeth Warren relating the story of her Aunt Bee who offered to care for her children so her career wouldn't stall, to Washington Senator Pat Murray who ran as the "mom in tennis shoes" in the early 90s.

Now, it has become a more prominent part of campaign messages in recent election cycles, with more candidates leaning into it.

"Anything Congress does on infrastructure has to include care," Kashen said.

But the stalled drive for the $15 federal minimum wage, which failed to make it into the final version of Biden's Covid rescue plan even though polls show it as a top priority for Black and Latina women, is a recent example of why experts remain cautious. The recent decision to split the infrastructure spending policy plans in two adds to those fears.

"What I so worry about in realizing these things at the federal level is we still have the same set of legislators that are making critical decisions for families without centering families in those conversations," Mason said. "We need to be thinking about how we define infrastructure. This is not 2008. We need to not be thinking about it as men in hard hats," she said. "It would be a mistake if we took a playbook from past recovery acts."

Porter represents a new and rising class of female politicians on Capitol Hill whose presence post-pandemic can influence policies in ways unimaginable when they were elected in 2016 and 2018.

"We have never, ever, in the history of this country, invested in equal opportunity for working parents and men and women in our workplace. So that is an even more overdue investment, and we all need to be calling on President Biden to prioritize it," Porter said.

But she is realistic about the numbers game and how far the effort still has to go.

"I kept hearing there are so many women," Porter recalled of her first days in Congress after her election in 2018. "And I kept looking around and I was not seeing not so many women."

Women's representation is going in the opposite direction of women in the labor force, but women still make up only 25% of Congress.

"When did halfway to parity become 'so many'?" Porter said.