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To the list of groups disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus pandemic — health care workers, nursing home residents, the poor, people of color — we must now add another: women.

Although COVID-19 is not necessarily more contagious or deadly for women than for men, it is women who have borne the greater economic burden. They tend to be employed in the sectors hollowed out by the pandemic: education, hospitality, retail. And they are chiefly responsible for caregiving, whether of children now home from school or elderly relatives needing support in the pandemic. In September, more than 860,000 women dropped out of the US labor force, four times the number of men. Is it any surprise the retreat coincided with the start of a new school year?

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One in four women is considering leaving the workforce due to the pandemic, and for the 40 percent who are the sole or primary breadwinner in their families (70 percent for Black women), it is not a casual choice. Taking a break from the labor market aggravates the wage gap even for career professional women; many lower-income workers lose their jobs altogether, launching a downward spiral of debt, hunger, and eviction.

Affordable, accessible, high-quality child care could spell the difference for millions of women between economic stability and this cascade of woes. Unfortunately, it’s harder to find than bipartisan comity in Washington. “We have a systemic problem of devaluing the role of women in the economy,” said Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts in an interview, “and the plight of the child-care industry is a symptom of that problem.”

The US Department of Health and Human Services defines “affordable” child care as costing no more than 7 percent of a family’s income. In Massachusetts, according to the Economic Policy Institute, day care for a 4-year-old costs on average $15,095 a year, which is 16 percent of median income even in this high-wage state. And it’s certainly not the (overwhelmingly female) workers who are getting rich on this expensive service; the median wage for a child-care worker in Massachusetts is $27,680. Despite the many political paeans to the sanctity of the family, society still sees child care as a private responsibility, not a public good.

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It was not always thus. During World War II, when Rosie and her sister riveters were recruited into the labor force, the US government developed heavily-subsidized “emergency nurseries” targeted to communities engaged in defense production. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many working mothers, remained ambivalent about outsourcing the care of children, and when the war ended, the programs went with it.

Another effort to establish a national child care system came tantalizingly close in the early 1970s, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, making preschool education available to all. It had broad bipartisan support, but President Richard Nixon vetoed it, finding “communal approaches to childrearing over against the family-centered approach” not just expensive but vaguely socialistic.

Two decades later, aides to President Bill Clinton tried to include expanded access to child care in the welfare reform law he signed in 1996. Few recall today that when Clinton campaigned on a promise to “end welfare as we know it,” he intended the new work requirements to be accompanied by near-universal day care, health care for all, and an increase in the minimum wage. In the end, most of the carrots were stripped out of the law, leaving the stick of punitive time limits, and any additional child care spending was tossed back to the states.

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Now the pandemic offers another pivot point. Clark, who was recently promoted to assistant speaker in the US House, has proposed legislation to help the child-care industry meet new safety and licensing standards, to forgive student debt for workers who gain education and skills, and to offer families tax credits to defray caregiving costs. “We need to treat child care like the foundation of the economy that it is,” she said. Clark’s bill passed the House but is stalled in the Senate. Still, she’s optimistic that the incoming Biden administration also has “a caring agenda” that focuses on preschool, child care, and paid family leave. “This is going to be the moment,” she said, “and we have got to move on it.”

Sociologists often speak about the “second shift” that women are required to work at home after their paying jobs end; the pandemic has imposed a third shift on mothers who must fill gaps left by the lack of in-class teaching and after-school activities. After decades of fitful efforts to create a genuine support infrastructure for women and children, this is the time to get it done.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.