As Biden Weighs Infrastructure, One Group Fights for Inclusion: Mothers

For many mothers newly burdened by the pandemic, resentment lingers that the government is helping too late. Both political parties are now trying to court them.,

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Last March, as most of America worried about getting sick, Kate Farley had a different, urgent concern: having a baby amid a pandemic.

The months after the birth of her third child were a blur of sleepless nights, followed by days spent managing remote school for her kindergartner, struggling to entertain her preschooler and setting up a classroom in her Middletown, N.J., home. By the time Ms. Farley returned to work in August, the 36-year-old lawyer had become convinced that politicians in both parties didn’t really care about the country’s mothers.

“My feeling was the government was doing nothing to help parents,” said Ms. Farley, who started an effort to press local officials to reopen schools. “There was a lot of talk and a lot of articles about moms bearing the brunt, but nothing was done.”

Now, a year later, Ms. Farley’s children are back in school and day care. But she still has a hard time trusting what politicians say about helping families.

“It just feels like children’s lives and mothers’ lives are something that can be manipulated,” said Ms. Farley, who describes herself politically as an independent.

As President Biden prepares to announce a major infrastructure proposal on Wednesday that is expected to include significant child care aid, on top of the financial support for families included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, parents across America are weighing these new attempts to help against a year’s worth of anxiety, exhaustion and logistical nightmares of patchwork schooling. For many parents, there are no real feelings of relief yet, and resentment lingers that the government is helping too late.

This is especially true for many American mothers: Almost one million had left the work force as of late last year, while nearly a quarter of children experienced food insecurity in 2020 and more than three-quarters of parents say the uncertainty around the current school year caused them stress. It is a strained and wary demographic — but also one that both political parties are trying to court with competing messages about pandemic relief.

ImageMary Bissell was back at work as a teacher less than a week after giving birth to her first child in August.
Mary Bissell was back at work as a teacher less than a week after giving birth to her first child in August. Credit…Adria Malcolm for The New York Times

Republicans are casting Democrats as unwilling to move quickly enough to reopen schools and the economy, saying they are kowtowing to the teachers’ unions. Democrats, in turn, hope to appeal to mothers with the “human infrastructure” package that Mr. Biden will announce Wednesday. Proposals under consideration include universal pre-K education, a national paid leave program and efforts to reduce child care costs.

Passage of such costly plans won’t be easy, given the Democrats’ narrow control of both chambers of Congress and the aversion of some moderates to pushing through another expansive package without Republican support. The suspicions of mothers like Ms. Farley may be borne out in the coming political debate, if Democrats end up favoring spending on roads and bridges over the child care aid.

In the balance is control of Congress after the 2022 midterm elections, which could hinge on whether Americans credit Democrats with restoring a sense of prosperity. While conditions are improving for mothers — more are returning to paid work and the stimulus package will provide a financial boost to nearly all families — the emotional and economic impacts of the past year still linger both in mothers’ lives and their politics. The state of American motherhood may offer one of the clearest measures of any return to normal.

For the last several years, Bridget Hughes worked as a supervisor in a Burger King near her home in Kansas City. But when her three children were stuck at home with online school, Ms. Hughes found it impossible to manage their care and her job. So she quit, taking three months before she found another as a shift manager at McDonald’s, where she makes $13 an hour.

“We were losing work that we should not have to lose,” Ms. Hughes said. “Child care should have been available during this pandemic. They had no preparation for this. They just left us out here for ourselves.”

Ms. Hughes, who voted for Mr. Biden, said she was heartened to see more attention given to the needs of mothers. But she is not particularly optimistic.

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Ms. Hughes and her daughter, RaeAunna.Credit…Katie Currid for The New York Times

“Mostly what we’re doing so far is putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needs stitches — eventually it’s going to bleed out,” she said. Considering her own situation, she added: “We’re making enough to keep from drowning, but we’re not making enough to pay for the things we actually need. We’re certainly not making enough for child care.”

Mothers and advocates for families cite a long list of policy frustrations. Congress declined to mandate paid leave in the stimulus bill, opting instead to extend a tax credit to employers who voluntarily offer the policy. While the relief bill included money for school reopenings, the support has not been well-targeted and comes toward the end of the school year. And it remains unclear whether the administration will push for the child care tax credit to be made permanent.

“Moms are getting screwed on the right or the left. I don’t feel like anyone is out there fighting for us,” said Reshma Saujani, the founder and chief executive of Girls Who Code, a group that works to attract more young women to become programmers and engineers. “There is an enormous amount of populist mom rage and I don’t think that moms feel seen. Why aren’t the schools open now? Every day that goes by, another mother is losing their job. It’s not a priority.”

Ms. Saujani is the creator of the Marshall Plan for Moms, a package of policies funding paid leave, affordable child care and pay equity aimed at helping mothers who have struggled during the pandemic. While pieces of her plan have been introduced in Congress and were included in the relief bill, and have been embraced by policymakers, celebrities and activists, Ms. Saujani would like to see more attention paid to a situation she views as a national emergency.

“Absolutely everything is a struggle right now — getting sick days, getting my son to learn, getting help,” said Adriana Alvarez, a single mother of a 9-year-old, who works at a McDonald’s just outside Chicago and has significantly cut back her hours in the last year. “There has to be a solution that’s funded by the government to help people like me.”

For others who have pushed for these policies for years, the moment seems most ripe: If a pandemic is not enough to persuade lawmakers to pass policies like paid family leave, will anything ever convince them?

Frequently Asked Questions About the New Stimulus Package

The stimulus payments would be $1,400 for most recipients. Those who are eligible would also receive an identical payment for each of their children. To qualify for the full $1,400, a single person would need an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or below. For heads of household, adjusted gross income would need to be $112,500 or below, and for married couples filing jointly that number would need to be $150,000 or below. To be eligible for a payment, a person must have a Social Security number. Read more.

Buying insurance through the government program known as COBRA would temporarily become a lot cheaper. COBRA, for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, generally lets someone who loses a job buy coverage via the former employer. But it’s expensive: Under normal circumstances, a person may have to pay at least 102 percent of the cost of the premium. Under the relief bill, the government would pay the entire COBRA premium from April 1 through Sept. 30. A person who qualified for new, employer-based health insurance someplace else before Sept. 30 would lose eligibility for the no-cost coverage. And someone who left a job voluntarily would not be eligible, either. Read more

This credit, which helps working families offset the cost of care for children under 13 and other dependents, would be significantly expanded for a single year. More people would be eligible, and many recipients would get a bigger break. The bill would also make the credit fully refundable, which means you could collect the money as a refund even if your tax bill was zero. “That will be helpful to people at the lower end” of the income scale, said Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Read more.

There would be a big one for people who already have debt. You wouldn’t have to pay income taxes on forgiven debt if you qualify for loan forgiveness or cancellation — for example, if you’ve been in an income-driven repayment plan for the requisite number of years, if your school defrauded you or if Congress or the president wipes away $10,000 of debt for large numbers of people. This would be the case for debt forgiven between Jan. 1, 2021, and the end of 2025. Read more.

The bill would provide billions of dollars in rental and utility assistance to people who are struggling and in danger of being evicted from their homes. About $27 billion would go toward emergency rental assistance. The vast majority of it would replenish the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund, created by the CARES Act and distributed through state, local and tribal governments, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. That’s on top of the $25 billion in assistance provided by the relief package passed in December. To receive financial assistance — which could be used for rent, utilities and other housing expenses — households would have to meet several conditions. Household income could not exceed 80 percent of the area median income, at least one household member must be at risk of homelessness or housing instability, and individuals would have to qualify for unemployment benefits or have experienced financial hardship (directly or indirectly) because of the pandemic. Assistance could be provided for up to 18 months, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Lower-income families that have been unemployed for three months or more would be given priority for assistance. Read more.

Nearly 200 businesses signed on to a letter to congressional leaders last week urging them to include paid family and medical leave in the upcoming infrastructure package, which many believe is the best chance to get the policy approved by Congress. Liberal organizations and caregiver advocacy groups started their own $20 million campaign, called #CareCantWait, that is pushing the administration to expand access to child care, paid family and medical leave, as well as home and community-based services for people with disabilities and aging adults.

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Reshma Saujani is an activist who created a package of policies aimed at helping moms who have struggled during the pandemic.Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

Others argue that the problem is one not only of political will but also of deep-seated cultural norms. Addressing the crisis facing mothers, said Jennifer Y. Hyman, the chief executive and a co-founder of Rent the Runway, would mean acknowledging a situation that predates the pandemic: Mothers do more work.

“The government has not done an effective job in taking care of moms because it’s ignored the underlying reality that we don’t want to admit as Americans but is fundamentally true,” said Ms. Hyman, whose husband stepped back professionally to care for their young daughters during the pandemic. “In a crisis like the pandemic, it was inevitable that something’s got to give and that was going to fall on women.”

Ms. Saujani put it even more simply: “If we went on strike, this country would have fallen.”

Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, said that for much of the last 20 years she had pushed for equal pay for women, paid family leave and universal child care. Now, with an expanded child tax credit in the $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, Ms. DeLauro said, more members of Congress are seeing helping mothers as an acceptable — even welcome — approach. That shift, she said, could be attributed to more women and mothers getting elected.

“For a long time, I was like the crazy aunt in the attic. But what we have seen in the last year is a real systems failure,” Ms. DeLauro said. “Some of these issues have been just about women and on the fringe. Now they are the center of discourse.”

Ms. DeLauro cited polling that showed a spike in support for paid family leave, particularly from voters who have not always embraced the policy, including Republicans and men.

For Mary Bissell, who gave birth to her first child in August, those policy shifts feel long overdue already.

Ms. Bissell gave birth on a Tuesday. By the next Monday, she was sitting on the couch cradling her newborn while attending orientation for the school where she has taught for the last decade. Without paid family leave, Ms. Bissell said, she could not afford to take time off.

In a way, Ms. Bissell considers herself lucky — distance learning allowed her to work and take care of her infant. But mostly, she feels abandoned.

“I want to be grateful for what we have, but I feel let down, because there’s so much that we need,” she said. “It’s really hard that we need it all right now, but we do. All this should have already been on the agenda.”

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