Biden Administration Resurrects Office To Help Women 'At The Breaking Point'

Feb 4, 2021
Originally published on February 4, 2021 10:38 am

Shortly after President Trump arrived at the White House, he disbanded an office specifically focused on women's issues. Now President Biden is resurrecting it just as quickly.

Biden has promised that gender equity will be at the forefront of his administration's policies. To help achieve that goal, he is creating a new Gender Policy Council within the White House — a reformulation of the Obama administration's White House Council on Women and Girls.

"Major structural disruption requires major structural change," council co-chair Jennifer Klein says in an interview with NPR. "Thinking big right now is exactly what we need to do. So, now's the time."

While women's rights groups hope to gain traction on a host of long-sought policies, those goals may run into some familiar headwinds in Congress, where Democrats hold a slim majority.

"A laser focus"

The wish list on Biden's agenda for women is long. It includes restoring and expanding reproductive rights, combating gender-based violence, reducing maternal mortality and adding the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

As part of his coronavirus recovery plan, Biden also has pitched a slew of economic proposals designed to benefit women, including paid family leave, more subsidies for child care and a $15 minimum wage.

"We need to maintain a laser focus on the particular needs and priorities for women and girls," Klein says. "If you look at last month's job numbers, women have lost jobs in historic numbers, particularly women of color, and the caregiving burden is falling disproportionately on women."

Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the new White House Gender Policy Council, says, "Thinking big right now is exactly what we need to do."
Alexander Laferriere / Courtesy of Watson Institute, Brown University

Jobs lost for women

In December, women accounted for all 140,000 of the country's net lost jobs. With so many schools and day care centers closed because of the pandemic, the caregiving crunch has forced many women out of the labor force.

"We are seeing because of the health pandemic, because of the economic crisis and in fact, a caregiving crisis that's been layered on top of it — these are core issues," Klein says.

The net effect of those crises has been disastrous for women, says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California-Hastings.

"Mothers already were at the breaking point in the United States. We already had a child care system that was basically a Rube Goldberg machine," Williams says.

The coronavirus brought that machine crashing down, she adds.

"The one thing I would want the Biden administration to do," Williams says, "is to recognize that just as we don't expect workers to get to work without physical infrastructure, like bridges and roads, we can't expect workers to get to work without a care infrastructure."

What would that care infrastructure look like? For Williams, it would include many of the things Biden has pledged to fight for: subsidized neighborhood child care as well as elder care, paid family leave, universal pre-K, and a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

Caring for families

Since the pandemic, the Center for WorkLife Law has fielded four times as many caregiving-related calls to their hotline from workers — overwhelmingly women — who are desperate to keep their jobs and care for their families.

"Especially during the pandemic," Williams says, "single moms have had to choose between putting food on the table and leaving young children home alone. Now, part of the reason is because the minimum wage is so low that there is no way in God's green earth that those moms can pay for child care."

The paid caregivers are also reeling from the crunch. Biden highlighted this when he announced his COVID-19 relief plan last month: "Let's make sure our caregivers, mostly women, women of color, immigrants, have the same pay and dignity that they deserve," he said.

Advocates like Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are heartened by what they're hearing from Biden, who long ago juggled child care and work as a single dad, albeit with a lot of help and a congressional salary.

"I know that he does come at it from his personal experience. And that's why we call him our caregiver-in-chief," Poo says. Her group represents workers including nannies, home care workers and housekeepers.

"Actually focusing on how we're gonna make these jobs good jobs for the 21st century, that you can take pride in, and support your family on, and be a part of a union, and earn a living wage with benefits — that is a really big breakthrough," Poo says.

Congressional headwinds

Conservatives, though, are leery of an agenda that would carry a hefty price tag, and they warn it could lead to crushing government regulations.

"My biggest concern is that all of the proposals that I'm hearing coming from their side of things inevitably seem to come back to big government intervention and government programs," says Charmaine Yoest, vice president of the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.

As for raising the minimum wage in the midst of a pandemic, when many businesses are suffering so badly?

"If there were a time that you could create that would be perfect to not raise the minimum wage, this would be it," Yoest says. "The last thing you want to do is put any kind of brakes on the economy coming back, the economy adding jobs. To raise expenses on employers when you're seeing companies going out of business, particularly the small businesses, it really, really doesn't make sense at all."

But even in the midst of the pandemic, voters in some states did pass measures to raise the minimum wage, provide universal preschool and establish paid family and medical leave.

"There is broad and bipartisan support for many of the issues we're naming," says Fatima Goss Graves, who heads the National Women's Law Center. Her group has issued an ambitious list of 100 demands they want to see fulfilled in the Biden administration's first hundred days — actions they say will help achieve gender equality.

"We thought it was important to put out a goal that matched the moment," says Graves. "What we are asking this administration and Congress to do is to effectively walk and chew gum. ... It would be way too easy to say, 'Let's just roll back all the things that have put people in harm's way over these last four years,' when the truth of the matter is, we need them to urgently undo many things and also march us forward."

Graves adds: "This president doesn't have the luxury of coasting in."

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Not long after Donald Trump arrived at the White House, he disbanded an office that focused on challenges affecting women. President Biden is now resurrecting it. Women's rights groups hope this will help them make progress on things like paid family leave and affordable child care. Here's NPR's Melissa Block.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The wish list on Biden's agenda for women is long - restoring and expanding reproductive rights, combating gender-based violence, reducing maternal mortality. And he's pitched a slew of economic proposals.

JENNIFER KLEIN: Major structural disruption requires major structural change. And I feel like thinking big right now is exactly what we need to do. So now's the time.

BLOCK: That's the co-chair of the Biden administration's new Gender Policy Council, Jennifer Klein.

KLEIN: You know, we are seeing because of the health pandemic, because of the economic crisis and, in fact, a caregiving crisis that's been layered on top of it, these are core issues.

BLOCK: Core issues, Klein points out, that are hitting women hard and especially women of color. Just look at the most recent jobs numbers. In December, women accounted for all 140,000 of the country's net lost jobs. One factor behind that - with so many schools and day care centers closed because of the coronavirus, many women have had to drop out of the labor force. That's been disastrous, says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings.

JOAN WILLIAMS: Mothers already were at the breaking point in the United States. I mean, we already had a child care system that was basically a Rube Goldberg machine.

BLOCK: And the coronavirus brought that machine crashing down. Williams says what she wants the Biden administration to do...

WILLIAMS: Is to recognize that, you know, just as we don't expect workers to get to work without physical infrastructure like bridges and roads, we can't expect workers to get to work without a care infrastructure.

BLOCK: What would that care infrastructure look like? For Williams, it would mean subsidized neighborhood-based child care, paid family leave, universal pre-K and a $15 an hour minimum wage.

WILLIAMS: Especially during the pandemic, single moms have had to choose between putting food on the table and leaving young children home alone. Now, part of the reason is because the minimum wage is so low that there is no way in God's green Earth that those moms can pay for child care.

BLOCK: The paid caregivers are also reeling from the crunch. President Biden highlighted this when he announced his COVID-19 relief plan last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's make sure our caregivers, mostly women, women of color, immigrants, have the same pay and dignity that they deserve.

BLOCK: Advocates like Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are heartened by what they're hearing from Biden. Her group represents workers, including nannies, home care workers and housekeepers.

AI-JEN POO: Actually focusing on how we're going to make these jobs good jobs for the 21st century that you can take pride in and earn a living wage with benefits, that is a really big breakthrough.

BLOCK: Conservatives, though, are leery of an agenda that carries a hefty price tag and, they warn, will lead to crushing government regulations. Charmaine Yoest is vice president of the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.

CHARMAINE YOEST: My biggest concern is that all of the proposals that I'm hearing coming from their side of things inevitably seem to come back to big government intervention and government programs.

BLOCK: As for raising the minimum wage in the midst of a pandemic when many businesses are suffering so badly...

YOEST: If there were a time that you could create that would be the perfect time to not raise the minimum wage, this would be it.

BLOCK: With such a slim Democratic majority in Congress, Biden's agenda could have a tough time gaining traction. But Fatima Goss Graves, who heads the National Women's Law Center, is undaunted. Her group has issued an ambitious list of 100 demands for Biden's first 100 days.

FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: Basically, what we are asking this administration and Congress to do is effectively walk and chew gum. We need them to both undo things that have been harmful and have been holding this country back and launch us forward in a way that we are stronger for it.

BLOCK: Graves adds, this president doesn't have the luxury of coasting in. Melissa Block, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.