Katie Porter is the only single mom with small children in Congress — and she wants people to understand that childcare will be key to America’s recovery from the recession caused by the pandemic.
Porter isn’t surprised that a wave of women, after trying their best over the last seven months, exited the workforce this fall. Of the 1.1 million workers who dropped out of the labor force in September, about 80% were women, and this is bad for our recovery from this economic crisis, the lawmaker said.
Working parents “have been hanging on [during the pandemic], and doing all these things we tell women to do — have a strong support network, be organized, make meals in advance, juggle, be flexible. And at some point, it just becomes overwhelming,” said Porter in an interview with BuzzFeed News. Their recent withdrawal from the workforce “is a huge issue, not only for equality in the workplace and opportunities for women, but also for our economy as a whole. Women in the workforce are a major driver of growth in GDP, and we can't have a meaningful economic recovery without those women coming back into the workforce.”
The struggles of pandemic parenthood can be felt across the 33.4 million American families, or two-fifths of all families, with kids under age 18.
It is a subject Porter frequently returns to, even if she didn’t have her meme-making whiteboard to demonstrate her points when she spoke. A survivor of domestic violence who divorced her husband in 2013, Porter has often discussed the difficulties of being the only single parent with young children in Congress.
Porter, elected in 2018 in California, has made a name for her searing and revealing interrogations of the country’s wealthiest, most powerful people at Congressional committees hearings in which she breaks down complicated subjects with simple language and shocking data on a whiteboard. “Rep. Katie Porter's Whiteboard Will Dry Erase Your Dignity,” wrote Elle.com. Last year, she grilled Wells Fargo’s then-CEO Tim Sloan, earning her social media fame. She asked JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, whose compensation was $31 million, to explain how the bank’s lowest-paid workers are supposed to make ends meet. And her whiteboard recently went viral when she asked a pharma exec why he made $13 million in 2017, including a $500,000 bonus for increasing the price of Revlimid, a cancer drug. “The drug didn’t get any better. The cancer patients didn’t get any better. You just got better at making money,” she said.
Throughout the pandemic, the 46-year-old member of Congress and former law school professor has spoken repeatedly about the struggles of working parenthood in video interviews from her own home, telling Yahoo News, “With three kids, the maximum in-person learning, the sum total of minutes that I will have all three children in school, so I can focus solely on my job — zero.” Indeed, the virus has had an outsize impact on single parents’ ability to work: Last month’s labor report shows the jobless rate was 10% for unmarried women who are caregivers compared to 6% of married women — suggesting many more single mothers had no choice but to leave their jobs to care for their children.
“What I’m trying to do is engage more Americans in speaking up about what they need,” she said about her favorite whiteboard. “Part of my goal is to try to, in concise ways, in a few seconds, in a couple of minutes, help working parents understand that we see them, that we value what they're contributing to our economy, and that we know they need help and support.”
While the pressures of pandemic childcare have disproportionately forced out working women, Porter doesn’t see this as a gender issue — bottom line, it’s just “extremely expensive to have talented, trained workers exiting the economy,” she said. “Just like we talk about needing to invest in green energy to keep up with China, you could make the exact same argument about childcare.” This is an infrastructure investment as she sees it.
The childcare industry is in crisis. The impact is disproportionate, as about 93% of childcare workers are women and half of these businesses are minority-owned, Politico reported. Thousands of programs have closed and fewer than 1 in 5 expected to survive longer than a year in a June survey by the NAEYC, raising serious concerns about how parents who relied on these programs can return to work.
While Congress has proposed various amounts of emergency relief for childcare businesses to prevent them from closing during the pandemic, Porter said it’s far cry from what working parents, many who could barely afford care before the pandemic, really need: systemic change. “There's this lack of seeing how this connects to our economic productivity, and the stability of our society. People are always told, ‘This is up to you to figure out.’ So in the workplace, women are told, ‘Go to your employer with a plan for how you'll continue to work after you have children,’ or ‘What’s your plan to come back to work after the birth of the child?’ We've always put these responsibilities on to women,” she said. “But I think what is obscured is any sense that these are collective problems. I think you hear a lot of women say, I can't figure it out. I just can't do this anymore. I’m out of ideas, instead of understanding childcare in a crisis nationally, and our country needs to make an investment.”
She pointed specifically at ongoing investments for universal preschool, bigger tax breaks for childcare expenses, funding for things like bus transportation and after-school programs, and paid family leave. “We just have to make sure that we're really understanding that we need structural change to support, women and men, parents of young kids in the workforce.”
This election, she said, could be a critical one for working parents, and she said she is “pleased” that caregiving is a larger part of Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. One of the main issues to address is the cost of care, which has become unaffordable for many families. Families with children under age 5 spend about 10% of their income on average on childcare, but that percentage gets higher as income gets lower, according to the Center for American Progress. The average cost of center-based childcare for two children is 42% of median income for Black families.
Biden’s plan would cost $775 billion over 10 years to fund the care of young children and the elderly; it’s about as much as Trump requested ($740.5 billion) for national defense in the 2021 budget. “We’ve heard absolutely nothing, no alternate plan, no different proposal, we’ve simply seen President Trump ignore these issues,” Porter said.
And as Congress has become more diverse, “I think we're seeing and hearing a lot more diversity of perspectives on what women need to be able to be successful and how that really pays off.”