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Rebekah Entralgo is the managing editor of Inequality.org at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
When my mother was hired as a home health aide for a young boy living with disabilities, she enjoyed it so much that she overlooked the reality that the job paid a low hourly wage with no benefits.
But, for a single mother with two children in school, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills. She made the difficult decision to leave the family after a year on the job.
The unsustainable nature of our current care economy didn’t just affect my mother. It also affected the family she cared for. Without a home health aide to look after her son, one parent had to take extra time off work to step in as a caregiver.
This crisis of care could be prevented if Congress were to take bold action to fund human infrastructure — just as it funds physical infrastructure like roads and bridges.
President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for spending $400 billion to expand home and community-based care for the elderly and people with disabilities. Care advocates hailed this as a “monumental advance” toward having a country where everyone can receive quality, affordable care — and where the workers who provide that care would earn enough to live.
The care economy is projected to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing industries. As Baby Boomers age, the economy is expected to add 1.6 million jobs related to adult care by 2024.
But despite this burgeoning need, home care workers are paid, on average, about $16,200 a year, and 1 out of 6 live below the poverty line.
Just as we need good union jobs to repair and build our roads and bridges, we need good union jobs to take care of our society’s most vulnerable. If we burn out these workers with low wages and long hours, our loved ones who need care will also pay the price.
The $400 billion investment outlined in Biden’s American Jobs Plan would allow aging and disabled Americans to stay in their homes, rather than having to move into expensive and potentially dangerous for-profit nursing homes.
The plan would also let home care workers, more than half of whom are Black and immigrant women, to bargain collectively to improve wages and benefits.
But as Congress works to strike up a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, Biden’s historic $400-billion proposal has seemingly fallen by the wayside, in favor of physical infrastructure. Republican Sen. Susan Collins has said she supports investing in the care economy but it is “not infrastructure” and “should be considered separately.”
Not surprisingly, two issues left out of the bipartisan infrastructure deal are climate change and the care economy, both areas where those in power delay taking essential action. Similar to how we are exhausting the planet through fracking, mining and pollution, we are exhausting care workers by making them work long hours for poverty wages.
Investing in the nation’s care infrastructure will create millions of critically needed jobs. It will help build an equitable economy that works for everyone, supporting both dedicated care workers like my mother and anyone in need of care.