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Congress Urged to Center Women with Build Back Better Act

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Tuesday, November 23, 2021   

By Katie Fleischer for Ms. Magazine.
Broadcast version by Lily Böhlke for Kentucky News Connection reporting for the Ms. Magazine-Public News Service Collaboration


FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Earlier this month, Congress successfully passed a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure framework (BIF), sending it to President Biden, who signed it into law last week. The bill focuses on traditional infrastructure, designating billions towards maintaining and updating roads, bridges and water systems, and expanding Internet access across the country. But while many congressional Democrats are celebrating the passage of the bipartisan bill, some progressives are worried about the side of infrastructure that the bill ignores: "human" or "social" infrastructure.

The infrastructure bill is meant to be part of a set, but its sibling bill, the Build Back Better (BBB) Act, is facing a slower slog in Congress-specifically, the Senate, after the House of Representatives passed the BBB last Friday.

The bill, passed largely along party lines 220 to 213, represents "a giant step forward," said President Biden. "Above all, it puts us on the path to build our economy back better than before by rebuilding the backbone of America: working people and the middle class."

The BBB focuses on investing in childcare, preschool, paid family leave and maintaining Biden's expanded child tax credit (CTC). It also sets aside money for addressing climate change and increasing access to affordable housing.

The legislation now moves to the Senate where the paid leave provision has been a sticking point for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), despite widespread bipartisan support. The BBB would create the first national paid family leave policy in the U.S., providing four weeks of paid leave. It would also extend the expanded CTC for one year, provide money to invest in maternal health, increase access to affordable healthcare and set aside funding to help cover home care for elderly people and disabled people.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many conservative lawmakers-and some moderates-are balking at the $1.75 trillion price tag that comes with these unprecedented policies that they see as unnecessary expenses. Before Friday's vote came together, moderate representatives had pledged to delay a vote in the House until BBB's effect on the national debt was scored by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). They promised to vote for the bill as long as the CBO finds that the BBB will have a minimal impact on the national debt.

Progressives argue the BBB seems to be facing an unfair double standard, because the BIF, which has now become law, will add an estimated $256 billion to the debt, according to the CBO.

This double standard is an example of pervasive biases that causes some progressive bills to face disproportional opposition. Too often, policies that are perceived to be "feminine" or unequally benefiting women are dismissed in favor of more "serious" policies.

These two infrastructure bills are no exception. The BIF passed with bipartisan support, with lawmakers from across the aisle coming together to pass the monumental bill that prioritizes industries like construction and civil engineering. It's no coincidence that almost all of the jobs created by the BIF will go to men, while the BBB, which focuses on things like childcare, elder care and paid family leave, is still stalled in Congress.

But while social spending is often dismissed as only benefiting women, policies like the CTC, paid family leave and guaranteed income result in better outcomes for everyone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, parents-particularly moms-were forced to leave the workforce in droves to take care of their children. But these policies provide a path towards reentering the workforce, resulting in more families having access to health insurance, multiple salaries and other resources like paid medical leave.

One low-income mom, Johnnie (last name withheld for anonymity), explained:

"During the pandemic, it was really hard for me because it was mandatory for me to go to work, but then my daughter was home from school and I didn't have anyone to be there to help her. If I would've had some assistance from my employer, I also wouldn't have been behind on my rent. I really think the government needs to have some kind of program to make sure that essential workers are taken care of if there's another pandemic. I really just think that employers and the government need to be prepared better for something like this-have supplies, have support programs, have a plan in place."

Pandemic-era policies like the expanded CTC have had a very real impact on the lives of low-income families. Even the BBB only extends the CTC for another year. But establishing a permanent CTC-and introducing other federal policies like guaranteed income-would result in unprecedented growth for families.

Sequaya, a low-income Black mom receiving $1,000 each month in guaranteed income from the Magnolia Mother's Trust (MMT) program, reflected on how the CTC has impacted her daughter's life:

"The new child tax credit payments have helped me a lot, especially since I've just gone from getting paid every week to having zero income. It's helped to put shoes on my daughter's feet and food in the fridge until my SNAP benefits come through. It's a big relief to wake up and just know, 'Okay, I'm not going to have to borrow money today because I have that extra help coming in.' It's very helpful."

Another MMT mom, I'esha, agrees that federal social infrastructure is key to supporting low-income Americans even after the pandemic.

"To get the child tax credit payments that started coming last month has been a huge help. I was able to use the first payment in July to get prepared and buy my children their school things-there's so much to get. And now that I have the guaranteed income money coming in, I don't have to worry about whether I can afford bills this month or be concerned about affording household supplies."

"I would love to see a program like the Magnolia Mother's Trust offered to more people, too. The government should want to pitch in a little more to help with programs like guaranteed income to help more families... If I could talk to President Biden, I would tell him that he should make the child tax credit permanent, because so many people are still unemployed and the pandemic is not over. And people need help even without a pandemic going on."

The COVID pandemic has made it clear that investments in social infrastructure policies have monumental effects on not just women, but their children and other family members as well. For the families receiving guaranteed income through MMT, even just one year of receiving $1,000 per month made a tremendous difference. The percentage of trust participants able to pay all their bills without additional support soared from 37 percent to 80 percent during the program.

Similarly, after receiving guaranteed payments for a year, 85 percent of participating moms had completed their high school education, compared to 63 percent at the beginning of the program. MMT families were also 20 percent more likely to have children performing at or above grade level, and were 27 percent more likely to seek needed medical care than other families not receiving guaranteed income.

And the benefits weren't limited to within MMT families. Several moms were able to go back to school, find stable housing and even start their own businesses, investing it back into their communities. The BBB recognizes that supporting small businesses is an important part of helping communities recover from the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, and that "soft" infrastructure is a key part of that recovery.

A recent report found that 66 percent of small business owners believe the federal government should support access to affordable child care, and more than half of small business owners say that a lack of childcare funding has had a negative impact on their employees and business. Additionally, 72 percent of small business owners have employees with at least one child under 13, but only 28 percent can currently afford to offer benefits related to child care.

With hundreds of thousands of parents-especially moms-dropping out of the workforce during the pandemic, many economic justice experts agree that the BBB is an opportunity to show how policies that center low-income families can improve everyone's quality of life. Instead of continuing to overlook policies due to sexist stereotypes about who benefits from social spending, Americans can and should embrace human infrastructure as a path forward towards economic recovery.

Passing the BBB and advocating for other federal policies, like guaranteed income, will prioritize the economic stability of everyone, not just male-dominated industries. And it's clear that policies like paid family leave and the CTC don't just benefit women, they benefit entire communities. Investing in traditionally female-dominated industries like childcare will give struggling Americans the support they need to recover from the pandemic, set their children up for success and rebuild their communities.

Katie Fleischer wrote this article for Ms. Magazine.


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