Within weeks of their births, our newborns made their debuts at our workplaces, holding court in the United States Senate and the California State Assembly. In the process, they made history, becoming the first and the youngest child, respectively, onto the floors of the chambers in which we serve.
But we can't take our daughters to the office every day. And every time we’ve been separated from them, we’ve been plagued with the thoughts that we know so many other parents have running through their heads when they leave their children to go to work: What’s going on with my kids at home? Are they falling behind in school? I feel like I should be doing more. But how can I be doing more when I’m already stretched so thin?
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the choices facing working parents have become even more impossible. How are the nurses on the frontlines supposed to juggle caring for their patients and caring for their children? How are couples supposed to negotiate who abandons their career—and a significant portion of their family’s income—to stay home to educate their child or tend to an elderly family member?
This struggle, deemed the “caregiving crisis” or “child care crisis,” has been one of the least addressed issues during this election cycle. Yet it’s front of mind for millions of voters as they fill out their ballots. We can’t waste any more time failing to address this crisis; we have to add it to the growing list of reasons to elect a president who will actually prioritize working families in America.
Right now, our nation is failing those families. In 23 states, it’s cheaper to send your kid to college than it is to enroll them in a quality preschool. We’re the only country among the 41 wealthiest nations in the world that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. Meanwhile, just 20 percent of private sector workers and 26 percent of public sector workers have paid family leave through their employers, which has left more than 110 million Americans without this critical benefit during a pandemic—an epic failure illustrated by the number of people who’ve had no choice but to abandon their jobs entirely. In September alone, 1.1 million people dropped out of the workforce, and 80 percent of them were women.
At this point, it’s obvious that the burden of the pandemic is falling disproportionately on those who can least afford it: women, people of color, and low-wage workers. We’ve already seen how the gaps in paid leave access are widening between the highest and lowest earners. Among the highest-earning workers in the U.S., 38 percent have paid family leave: a still-dismal figure that’s gone up by 20 percent over the last 10 years. But among our country’s lowest-earning workers, just 5 percent have paid family leave, up by only two percent over the past decade.
Many of these workers are also ones who can’t do their jobs remotely. The ones less likely to have access to affordable child care. The ones who can’t take paid leave when they’re sick, and are unable to rely on a loved one to help care for their young child when they're running a fever, or need help with their homework. With the system the way it currently is, it’s likely that their family members are in the same boat.
This is not the time to fail working families. It is not the time to exacerbate the equity gaps that permeate every corner of our society. As a nation, it’s unconscionable to expect caregivers who lack paid leave or family support to shoulder these burdens without any help.
What was once supposedly a priority in the Trump administration has been abandoned. President Trump hasn’t given any serious indication that he cares enough to solve this problem amidst the national emergency we're facing right now, or that he will care enough to do so in the future. With every tweet, every scandal, and every disgraceful photo op, he demonstrates the exact opposite, hoping to distract from the obvious reality that he has no plan to serve or protect American families.
Overwhelmingly, voters support better family leave policies. In fact, polling shows that paid leave has such strong support from voters that it could prompt some to vote Democrat over Republican in key House and Senate races. But that isn't enough: We’ll never make as much progress as these families deserve without a president who actually cares about them. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has a $775 billion economic recovery plan over 10 years that includes expanding access to affordable child care and tackling the caregiving crisis. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he plans to immediately provide states with the relief they need to keep child care services running safely and effectively.
It’s time to look past Trump’s three-ring circus and hone in on the issues that impact Americans’ day-to-day lives. If we want to get through this pandemic and make our economy work for everyone with high-quality child care policies in place, Joe Biden is our only path forward.
Tammy Duckworth is a senator for the state of Illinois, an Iraq War veteran, and former assistant secretary of veterans affairs. Buffy Wicks is a California assemblymember (Bay Area), White House alum, and a chief architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 grassroots campaign.