The Nation’s Moment of Truth: The economic and moral case for investing in caregivers
April 30, 2021 Ms. Magazine
Investing in a robust care infrastructure would not only create new jobs, but would also allow many others to come back, spurring the country’s economic engine.
This article is a Part 2 of a two-part adaptation of the feature article from the Spring 2021 issue of Ms. Get caught up on Part 1 here.
The Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress have an opportunity to center care work as essential work through major public investments that could establish universal access to high-quality care. Investing in care cannot be an afterthought in our recovery response.
Federal investment in child care, residential health care and home health care can create high-quality employment opportunities for millions of workers, lifting the disproportionately women-of-color workforce out of poverty while enabling unpaid family caregivers to join the paid workforce. And as care workers spend wages on goods and services, new jobs will also be created in major employment sectors like retail and food service.
A Pivotal Moment
During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris committed to establishing a robust care infrastructure as a key economic plank of their “Build Back Better” platform. As the economic crisis continues, extensive government spending is necessary to provide immediate relief and to ensure long-term recovery for those most impacted.
The American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden in mid-March, commits $40 billion to stabilize child care through an emergency fund for providers and the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which aims to ensure safe operation of child care facilities, increased pay for workers and reduced costs for families. But the real test is whether, given Republican obstructionism, the Biden-Harris adminis- tration can work with Congress to establish a public care infrastructure for the long term.
Addressing our caregiving crisis is a moral and economic imperative.
The care sector is the backbone of the U.S. economy. Care jobs are job-supporting jobs, and when care workers earn family-supporting compensation, their own spending activity will create new jobs in other sectors as well. Our research for Time’s Up Foundation finds that one crucial way to provide relief and set the foundation for a more inclusive economy going forward is to invest in our caregiving infrastructure.
We modeled the effect of an ongoing $77.5 billion annual public investment divided across the child care, residential health care and home health care sectors, and we found that it would support more than 2 million new jobs and $220 billion in new economic activity annually.
The job creation includes 1.5 million jobs in the care sector, but also has important spillover effects. As more care jobs become available, care workers would be more likely to spend money at local restaurants or make purchases that they might have been delaying. Indeed, what we outline in our paper is that an investment in a care infrastructure would create an additional 81,000 and 45,000 jobs in the food service and retail sectors, respectively.
This is a particularly striking finding, considering the incredible blows that these same sectors have sustained over the past year. As the economic fallout from the pandemic became apparent, it was the retail and food service sectors—sectors where Black women and Latinas are disproportionately employed—that saw massive job losses as businesses shut down. The unemployment rate for retail workers went from 5.1 percent in January 2020 to 7.3 percent in January 2021, while food service unemployment went from 6.2 percent to 14.4 percent over the same time period.
Our findings likely understate the true benefits to investing in care. Our calculations cannot take into account the unknown droves of women who have been forced out of the labor market because of unmet child and elder care needs over the course of the pandemic (and even before). And our model is limited to analyzing the impacts of job creation at current wages for care workers, though family-supporting wages would enable higher economic activity. Investing in a robust care infrastructure would not only create new jobs, but would also allow many others to come back, spurring the country’s economic engine.
To be effective, investments for the care sector must support high-quality jobs and accessible, affordable care to all. Care labor is undervalued and unappreciated precisely because we undervalue the women of color who provide it. We must ensure that women are not simply returning to the insecure, underpaid jobs they occupied before the pandemic, but that we are reshaping what those jobs look like.
An inclusive approach that centers the well-being and success of Black women in response to this crisis—what Janelle Jones (the Labor Department’s chief economist), Kendra Bozarth and Grace Western call “Black Women Best”—is a necessary pathway to begin to build equity now and to undo the exclusion inherent in U.S. policies, systems and institutions.
As Jones, Bozarth and Western write, “Recovering from a pandemic and an economic crisis … is an opportunity to redesign institutions built on generations of systemic exclusions that hold back Black women and all of us.” Centering Black women in relief and recovery efforts will not magically counteract the decades of policy choices that have taken power and agency from women of color, and Black women in particular, but it is an important first step. Central to the Black Women Best framework is the argument that centering Black women in policy will provide better outcomes and a stronger economy for everyone else.
By pursuing a policy in which care work is valued as high-quality work that pays family-supporting wages, investing in care can also be a strategy for attracting more men to the sector. As workers who are disproportionately male eventually transition out of, for instance, dirty energy sectors, care work can be a new career opportunity for them. Recent work by New America’s Better Life Lab details the particular experiences of men in the paid care labor force, demonstrating how norms and policy changes are necessary to make sure that care work is seen as men’s work, too. Men who work as caregivers already tend to earn more than women in the same field, but the Better Life Lab concluded that care work would appeal to more men if public policies required living wages, benefits and stable work schedules.
The public gets it: Investments in care are incredibly popular. A poll commissioned by Time’s Up Foundation, Caring Across Generations and Paid Leave for All Action found that more than 90 percent of voters are in favor of a comprehensive plan to provide services and support for people who are responsible for family and child care. Less than a third of voters thought that these needs could be met through individual actions. Polling by Data for Progress demonstrates overwhelming support for large-scale public spending to meet the COVID-19 crisis.
This moment of crisis calls for deep and extensive public investments in the people and communities who have supported our economy for generations. When we choose not to spend our public funds on a public problem we are making an active choice about who we value in our economy—and who we don’t. Choosing to invest in care would serve as an important signal that as a society we cannot and will not take women for granted any longer. In this mo- ment of relief and recovery, if we settle for benching half the population because of a care crisis, there is no way we will enjoy a sustainable, inclusive economy going forward.
We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enact transformative change and to rethink our economy at large and also how we value and treat women’s labor. Let’s not let it pass us by.
Read on Ms. Magazine.