Heather Boushey is the rare woman at the top of the economic field who also walks the halls of power. The president and cofounder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a D.C.-based, progressive-leaning economic think tank, in 2016 she was named chief economist for Hillary Clinton’s presidential transition team, and this election season, she’s been unofficially working with the Biden campaign as one of the Democratic candidate’s top economic advisers. The author of Unbound: How Economic Inequality Constricts Our Economy and What We Can Do About It and Finding Time: The Economics of Work-Life Conflict, Boushey is also a leading voice on issues like paid leave, child care, and economic inequality—issues that have morphed into full-blown crises during the Covid pandemic. We spoke about the ways she’s watched these issues evolve over the last decade and how the pandemic has accelerated calls for change.

—Bryce Covert

Bryce Covert: You’ve been working on paid leave for about a decade, dating back to when you helped craft a social insurance policy that eventually became the Congressional FAMILY Act, a national program that would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave for the arrival of a new child, to care for a seriously sick or disabled family member, or to recover from an illness. Now that’s the default Democratic position. We’ve seen more states adopting these policies—some even more expansive than the FAMILY Act—and some Republicans have started talking about paid leave. What has changed since you first started working on this issue?

Heather Boushey: So much has changed. It has been such a bright area of labor policy to be working on over the past decade. Often when I talk to different audiences, people seem frustrated about the ongoing declining union coverage or our failure to raise the federal minimum wage or other issues where there has been less progress. Paid family leave is a place where we have, over the past decade and a half, actually provided people with a new social insurance benefit in states and here in the District of Columbia. I went for a jog today in my DC Paid Leave T-shirt, which I often do. It’s exciting that we now finally have this program that just got put in place here. We also got the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, which had been in play for over a decade.

There has been a lot of movement because there’s that recognition that in order for people to show up at work they need to be able to address their care issues. If you just had a child, or if you have a sick family member, or you’re sick, you can’t be at work and you need that social insurance. You need that time away, that paid time off to make it work.

Twenty twenty and the pandemic have both underscored how important paid leave is. Early in the pandemic, I made these five predictions about what it would look like in the United States. And because we’re one of the only countries that doesn’t [guarantee paid leave] among our economic competitors, that really puts us at a disadvantage. That felt very dark for me, realizing this crisis is going to be harder for us because we haven’t taken care of that.

But then to see the text of the FAMILY Act in that very first piece of [coronavirus relief] legislation—it didn’t get into the final bill but in the House legislation as they were putting it together—it was exciting to see policy-makers use an idea that was tested. They knew what it was—they’d had hearings on it; they’d seen it work in states. And they said, ”We need this, and we need this now.”

BC: What do you think has shifted attitudes about paid leave, child care, and other family supports—among Democrats, and also in the Republican Party?

HB: One of the moments for me that is so emblematic of how this has shifted is that in 2017, I participated in a project that was cohosted by the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute on paid leave. They had one or two meetings and they decided that when it came to parental leave, men and women should both get it and they should get the same amount. And it was just like, done. Not a question, not something to be debated, there was just this widespread agreement. There was real consensus that at least when it came to parental leave that it was absolutely necessary, everybody needed it, and the details were very much about the design of the system.

Back in the early 1970s, when Nixon proposed a universal child care program, there was this sense of, “Well, we can’t do that because then moms will just go to work.” That is not the conversation that we’re having anymore. So I think those realities have really come to bear on families and the important role that women’s and mother’s employment plays in family income.

Women working isn’t just something that women want to do, although that’s super-important. It’s also really important to family economic well-being. But if you’re going to do that, you have to address this stress that families face around care.

BC: You argue that these policies are important for women and their ability to work outside the home, but they’re also important for families, and they’re important for men. Do you think policies like paid leave and child care are starting to be recognized as more than “just” women’s issues and a component of what we need for economic growth? And do you think it’s significant that we’ve seen male candidates like Joe Biden taking them up?

HB: There is so much evidence that shows that what we need for an economy to thrive is for people to literally be able to get to work and do their job. And you need someone to provide care, otherwise people cannot get to work and get their jobs. That is the lesson of 2020. If people cannot get to work, then huge parts of the economy flounder. You can see that all around us. The fact that schools are closed and day cares are closed, it means that essential workers can’t get to work. Folks who are telecommuting from home are struggling with kids showing up on their Zoom calls.

As we have this aging population, it is actually men who are oftentimes now taking on more of the responsibility. Not as much perhaps as their female partners, their wives and sisters, might want. But they are taking on the responsibility for their aging parents. There’s also all of this evidence that engagement of dads in those first years of life are so important, for children’s well-being, for family cohesion, and for the ability of women to be full participants in the labor force. All of which is good for short and long term productivity and economic growth. All of these things go together.

It has been very exciting to see male politicians taking on these issues and moving forward with them. It’s of course been exciting to see Vice President Biden make the care economy a core plank of his Build Back Better plan. It was very exciting to see Marco Rubio over the past years talking about paid leave, really making the case that this is a win-win policy. It makes good business sense, and it’s been exciting to see not only women leaders but male leaders on both sides of the aisle taking up the mantle on this.

BC: A big plank of Joe Biden’s plan was elder care. That issue hasn’t gotten the same amount of attention as paid leave for a new child or child care. Is this a policy area that should be getting more attention on the campaign trail, in Congress, in the White House? Is this something we need to be talking more about?

HB: I think it’s very important and I do think we should be talking more about it. It’s a hard issue to talk about, though, because we’re talking about aging loved ones who need help. It’s not the new birth and the glow of that new life and the time off to bond with that new child who’s going to grow up and become independent. It’s how do we help make sure that folks at the other end of life, or who might be sick, have the care and the time they need. It’s the harder side of the care economy.

It can also be very expensive and it has to be very personalized. So it’s everything from the aging woman who fell down and broke her hip who needs some care in her home after recuperating in some sort of facility, but needs help to just get back on her feet, literally, to folks that have dementia or other kinds of needs that might be more long lasting. Some folks may need in-home care, some folks may need more help covering nursing care. And the reality is that we don’t have social insurance programs that help families deal with this. We don’t have a robust enough system of home health aides to help people age in place or to deal with setbacks in place so that they can recover and then be able to stay in their communities with their friends and their churches and be close to their families. And for folks that need to go into, or that choose to go into, nursing homes, that can be incredibly expensive. Medicare doesn’t cover it and we don’t have effective long-term care insurance nationwide. There’s a lot of big issues there that make it quite challenging.

BC: You’ve been fighting for policies that support caregiving and for other efforts to tackle economic inequalities your entire career. How has the pandemic highlighted and exacerbated these inequalities? What might that mean moving forward?

HB: Twenty twenty has unmasked fragilities across our economy and our society. In many ways, it’s shown us what inequality means. We say this word “inequality,” but it’s abstract. But 2020 has shown us if you’re in a job where you don’t have the right to stay home if you’re sick you are more vulnerable to an infectious disease. Or you’ve got a sick family member, but you can’t afford to stay home and quarantine because you might lose your job or a day’s pay or a week’s pay.

That’s inequality. Workers at the high end of the income distribution have paid sick days; workers at the bottom don’t. Access to paid family and medical leave—again, workers at the top have that; workers in the states that passed paid family leave have some of those benefits. But workers at the lower end of the wage distribution tend to not have those benefits. That’s what inequality looks like. Do you have the right to bargain about those issues on the job? Folks are less likely today than 10, 20, 30 years ago to be in a union. And what that looks like is that then they don’t have the right to bargain over protective gear or paid leave.

This has really shown us how fragile the system is and how vulnerable so many people are. The thing about a pandemic is that we’re all vulnerable if we cannot contain it. As long as everyone is not able to be protected, to stay home when they’re sick, have health care, we are not going to be able to have everyone be safe. I know if I go into a grocery store that doesn’t give people paid sick days, I am more likely to get sick shopping at that store. That drags down growth in productivity and it makes us all vulnerable.

That basic understanding is so visceral for so many. People understand, notwithstanding some of the protests, why we need to wear masks. People have been in favor of the relief that gives people those supports. For years we’ve been talking about these policies to address work-life conflict as though they were just about a moment in time or something like a perk. What 2020 shows us is that this is fundamental. And it’s fundamental to our economic competitiveness.

BC: There were a lot of economists and other thinkers who felt like we did not respond in a robust enough way to the Great Recession on a variety of fronts. Now we’re facing another recession caused by the pandemic. What lessons did we learn from the Great Recession that should be applied to our current situation? What do we take from the last time to do it better this time?

HB: Go big or go home. [Laughs] One of the things that we’ve learned from that recession is that we did not get many bites at the apple. So we need to really carefully craft legislation to make sure that we’re actually solving the problem.

Automatic stabilizers [government programs on which spending increases whenever need increases, like food stamps and unemployment benefits, without requiring a vote in Congress]—we weren’t able to do that in the years of the Great Recession. We weren’t able to fix the unemployment insurance system. And here we are with a system that is failing, leaving many communities not able to get benefits out fast enough, not able to change the amount of benefits in a quick way. It’s not robust [enough] for the crises. We need to not only extend benefits but make sure that we’re fixing the system so that it can be there for the long haul rather than setting that aside for a different day.

The other thing that we learned from the Great Recession is that having a plan, having policies that have been tested, that legislators understand, that they’ve seen put into place somewhere or they’ve had an opportunity to think about, can be so effective in getting things across the finish line. There has been a lot of activity over the course of 2020 to understand the problems, to identify them, and to identify solutions. You can see policy-makers across the country coming up with ideas, doing hearings, and passing things. Saying, we’re figuring out what we need to do and we’re studying what we’ve done before. So you have a lot more runway in many ways than we had in January of 2009.