NOEL KING, HOST:
Not long after Donald Trump arrived at the White House, he disbanded an office that focused on challenges affecting women. President Biden is now resurrecting it. Women's rights groups hope this will help them make progress on things like paid family leave and affordable child care. Here's NPR's Melissa Block.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The wish list on Biden's agenda for women is long - restoring and expanding reproductive rights, combating gender-based violence, reducing maternal mortality. And he's pitched a slew of economic proposals.
JENNIFER KLEIN: Major structural disruption requires major structural change. And I feel like thinking big right now is exactly what we need to do. So now's the time.
BLOCK: That's the co-chair of the Biden administration's new Gender Policy Council, Jennifer Klein.
KLEIN: You know, we are seeing because of the health pandemic, because of the economic crisis and, in fact, a caregiving crisis that's been layered on top of it, these are core issues.
BLOCK: Core issues, Klein points out, that are hitting women hard and especially women of color. Just look at the most recent jobs numbers. In December, women accounted for all 140,000 of the country's net lost jobs. One factor behind that - with so many schools and day care centers closed because of the coronavirus, many women have had to drop out of the labor force. That's been disastrous, says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings.
JOAN WILLIAMS: Mothers already were at the breaking point in the United States. I mean, we already had a child care system that was basically a Rube Goldberg machine.
BLOCK: And the coronavirus brought that machine crashing down. Williams says what she wants the Biden administration to do...
WILLIAMS: Is to recognize that, you know, just as we don't expect workers to get to work without physical infrastructure like bridges and roads, we can't expect workers to get to work without a care infrastructure.
BLOCK: What would that care infrastructure look like? For Williams, it would mean subsidized neighborhood-based child care, paid family leave, universal pre-K and a $15 an hour minimum wage.
WILLIAMS: Especially during the pandemic, single moms have had to choose between putting food on the table and leaving young children home alone. Now, part of the reason is because the minimum wage is so low that there is no way in God's green Earth that those moms can pay for child care.
BLOCK: The paid caregivers are also reeling from the crunch. President Biden highlighted this when he announced his COVID-19 relief plan last month.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Let's make sure our caregivers, mostly women, women of color, immigrants, have the same pay and dignity that they deserve.
BLOCK: Advocates like Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, are heartened by what they're hearing from Biden. Her group represents workers, including nannies, home care workers and housekeepers.
AI-JEN POO: Actually focusing on how we're going to make these jobs good jobs for the 21st century that you can take pride in and earn a living wage with benefits, that is a really big breakthrough.
BLOCK: Conservatives, though, are leery of an agenda that carries a hefty price tag and, they warn, will lead to crushing government regulations. Charmaine Yoest is vice president of the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation.
CHARMAINE YOEST: My biggest concern is that all of the proposals that I'm hearing coming from their side of things inevitably seem to come back to big government intervention and government programs.
BLOCK: As for raising the minimum wage in the midst of a pandemic when many businesses are suffering so badly...
YOEST: If there were a time that you could create that would be the perfect time to not raise the minimum wage, this would be it.
BLOCK: With such a slim Democratic majority in Congress, Biden's agenda could have a tough time gaining traction. But Fatima Goss Graves, who heads the National Women's Law Center, is undaunted. Her group has issued an ambitious list of 100 demands for Biden's first 100 days.
FATIMA GOSS GRAVES: Basically, what we are asking this administration and Congress to do is effectively walk and chew gum. We need them to both undo things that have been harmful and have been holding this country back and launch us forward in a way that we are stronger for it.
BLOCK: Graves adds, this president doesn't have the luxury of coasting in. Melissa Block, NPR News.
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