Supreme Court

Legislating Work and Childcare After Dobbs

Ellie Samuels

Ellie Samuels is a student at Harvard Law School.

The decimation of the constitutional right to abortion leaves women forced to give birth yet stranded when it comes to actually raising their children.

Over the last few decades, childcare has become increasingly unaffordable and inaccessible in America. The average annual cost of childcare in the US is over $10,000 per child, a 220% increase over the last thirty years. Most parents report spending over 20% of their income on childcare. Years-long daycare waitlists are the norm. The American Rescue Plan emergency childcare funding is expiring, and childcare facilities are facing chronic understaffing due to poor working conditions.  

The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision added a new urgency to this problem. The loss of reproductive freedom amidst an escalating childcare crisis means parents, particularly mothers, are stripped of their decision-making power over when and whether to have children and stay in the workforce. Studies show that women still overwhelmingly bear the brunt of childcare, and they pay for it in the workplace. According to research by the Center for American Progress, mothers without sufficient childcare access were “significantly less likely to be employed,” with “no impact on fathers” in the same dilemma. While women make up the majority (57.4%) of the workforce, they continue to leave work at higher rates due to caregiving responsibilities and face penalties when they return after having children. Report after report showed that these gender disparities were exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Politics of Women and Childcare

Combatting the childcare crisis and its gendered effects won’t be easy. For decades, the “pro-life” movement has fixated on banning abortion rather than promoting measures to support children and encourage family formation. The far-right has increasing control over the Republican party and is dead set on forcing women out of the workplace and back into the home. At a recent Turning Point USA Young Women’s Leadership Summit, speakers, including Candace Owens and Lara Trump, encouraged young women to give up on their careers to become wives and mothers. (The conference was 1970s themed, decorated with disco balls and slogans like “Birth control is so last year”). There is growing support to further limit women’s freedoms, including by banning contraception, banning IVF, and, bafflingly, ending no-fault divorce. Many far-right commentators and media personalities are avowedly opposed to policies that would make daycare more available and affordable, reasoning that mothers should be solely responsible for childcare.

Despite these worrying trends, there are some reasons to be optimistic. This year, the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (“PWFA”) and PUMP Act—two federal laws addressing workplace pregnancy and breastfeeding accommodations—were enacted with broad bipartisan support. Upon its passage, Republican cosponsor Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) described the PWFA as “pro-mother, pro-life and pro-family,” while Democratic cosponsor Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) praised the law for breaking down barriers for women in the workplace. The rarity of bipartisan legislative success in 2023 is worth celebrating. These laws show, hopefully, that Congress is not entirely controlled by the far-right forces pushing women to revert to traditional roles during pregnancy and caregiving. Moreover, these laws demonstrate the potential for post-Dobbs compromise to offset some of what we have lost.

These pregnancy laws are not the only indicator of success on family issues. There are promising efforts to combat the childcare crisis across the country that deserve our attention.

Legislating the Childcare Crisis

Since the childcare crisis is forcing parents out of the workforce, it may at first glance seem like a problem for employers to solve. Patagonia, Johnson & Johnson, and Marriott are among the 6% of employers that provide in-house or nearby daycare. Beneficiaries have described this provision as a godsend that makes it feasible to be a working parent. President Biden recently signed the CHIPs Act, which requires semiconductor companies to provide childcare for their all their employees. He touted the law as a “common-sense approach to the imperative of increasing our workforce.” However, the legislative win came at the expense of a broader vision: the President had originally championed universal childcare as one of his Build Back Better proposals. After Senator Joe Manchin and the Republicans axed those provisions from the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden switched gears. Biden’s compromise demonstrates the political difficulty of creating transformative social safety nets and the attractiveness of Band-Aid measures like employer benefits.

Universal daycare, already the norm in countries like Sweden and Denmark, would have been a true transformation for working parents, much like how public schools transformed the US in the past. Conversely, employer-provided childcare makes job loss especially dire, and does nothing to help those employed elsewhere or outside the workforce. Elliot Haspel writes in the Atlantic that employer-provided childcare is the “tragically American approach,” that “[i]f at first you fail to make something a universal right, try making it an employee benefit.”

Thankfully, there are more options than company perks and universal daycare, and states across the country have been exploring them. Michigan is currently piloting a “Tri-Share” program that splits childcare costs between companies, workers, and the government. In the three regions covered by the program, employee retention increased by over 80%. In Vermont, where average childcare costs exceed $26,000 a year, the state recently enacted a limited payroll tax (with 75% paid for by employers) to subsidize care. During the pandemic, Wisconsin funded a pilot program to use a $10 million American Rescue Plan grant to allow 88 employers to cover a year of employees’ childcare, while Kentucky made childcare free for all childcare workers. More laws are in the pipeline; Oklahoma, Indiana, and Missouri have proposed several different tax credits for childcare facilities (and for anyone who donates to them). In the absence of public daycare, these innovative solutions can make a vast, immediate difference for working parents.

Moving Forward

We are facing existential threats to Americans’ freedoms posed by the Supreme Court and the far-right. The early success of red and blue state childcare programs is a promising and exciting start and demonstrates that the far-right agenda does not (yet) control our family and employment law. We must push back against 1950s ideologies and take every opportunity to enact measures supporting workers and families.

Our current childcare system is failing, and limited employee benefits are a poor Band-Aid. Affordable, widely accessible childcare would mitigate the gender disparities in childcare, while alleviating economic barriers for every parent and child regardless of gender and family makeup. To achieve full economic and gender equality, we must work towards universal childcare and a complete guarantee of reproductive rights. Until then, these measures have the potential to alleviate some of Dobbs’ most dire consequences, and return some autonomy to workers, parents, and families.

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