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Family caregivers need a voice in our political debate

Family caregivers need a voice in our political debate
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It’s hard for over 40 million people to speak with one voice when the interest they share is not in any way political.

Family caregivers selflessly take care of loved ones, from a child with a chronic disease to an aging parent, every minute of the day. They prepare meals, install handrails, keep track of pills and injections, treat wounds, and much more. It can be the most rewarding experience of their lives. But the 40 million plus family caregivers across the United States also face a big toll on their finances and health — implications which are completely overlooked by federal policy.

It doesn’t have to be this way. By better understanding three sacrifices family caregivers are making, it’s clear that there are some simple solutions that can make a difference in their lives — and those under their care.

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Their biggest financial sacrifice comes from a loss of income. When a family caregiver needs to leave a job or cut back hours, their long-term financial outlook can turn bleak. For example, caregivers age 50+ who leave the labor force to care for a parent forego more than $300,000 on average in lost wages, Social Security benefits, and pensions. Women sacrifice about $324,000 on average and men $284,000.

They also face out-of-pocket costs from the small acts of kindness for a loved one that can add up to big sums of money. Family caregivers on average spent $7,000 on caregiving expenses in 2016. That was 20 percent of their income. To put that amount in perspective, it is similar to the cost of raising of child. A middle income married couple spent an average of 16 percent of their income on raising a child in 2015.

Why is the comparison with parenting important? Society supports parenting in lots of ways like tax credits and tax exemptions for parents. The tax policy principle is that income taxes should exclude basic costs of living. Yet family caregivers don’t receive similar tax treatment for the similar cost of living expenses they incur on behalf of their loved ones.  

Family caregiving has a big impact on health, too, as it is often extremely stressful work. More than half of family caregivers perform medical or nursing tasks like injections and tube feedings. Four out of ten caregivers rank the emotional stress of caregiving as a four or five on a five-point scale. The same number say they felt “down, depressed, or hopeless in the last two weeks,” according to a survey by the AARP and the United Hospital Fund. It should come as no surprise that family caregivers have higher rates of chronic disease and worse physical health than the average person.

Fortunately, private-sector support for caregivers is growing. For example, a new program pioneered at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital trains caregivers for several days before a central line is inserted and sends a nurse to a home to support family caregivers. Such training has dramatically reduced bloodstream infections stemming from care at home, which helps reduce hospitalizations and costs.

What about support from policymakers?

One simple solution would be a tax credit for family caregivers. Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US MORE (R-Iowa) and Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetSchumer vows to only pass infrastructure package that is 'a strong, bold climate bill' Past criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Hillicon Valley: Big Tech critic Lina Khan named chair of the FTC | Lawmakers urge Biden to be tough on cyber during summit with Putin | TSA working on additional security regulations following Colonial Pipeline hack MORE (D-Colo.) and Reps. Tom ReedTom ReedThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate path uncertain after House approves Jan. 6 panel Lawmakers brace for battles with colleagues as redistricting kicks off Hundreds of businesses sign on to support LGBTQ rights legislation MORE (R-N.Y.) and Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) have proposed a targeted credit for out-of-pocket caregiving expenses (S. 1151, H.R. 2505). Their bill would begin to put family caregiving on par with parenting in the tax code.

In addition to financial support, questions arise over who exactly is responsible for supporting family caregivers as they care for others. Everyone from social service organizations to providers to health plans will provide support at some point, but without a coordinated effort, gaps will persist.

That’s also where policymakers can play an important role. Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsWhite House reiterates opposition to raising gas tax amid infrastructure debate Centrists gain leverage over progressives in Senate infrastructure battle Lawmakers rally around cyber legislation following string of attacks MORE (R-Maine) and Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinOvernight Defense: Pentagon pulling some air defense assets from Middle East | Dems introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for discrimination | White House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Democrats introduce resolution apologizing to LGBT community for government discrimination Overnight Health Care: Takeaways on the Supreme Court's Obamacare decision | COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of American life | Biden administration investing billions in antiviral pills for COVID-19 MORE (D-Wis.) and Reps. Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperEthics watchdog: 'Substantial' evidence GOP lawmaker improperly spent funds, misused position to help brother Congress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Dems cry foul in undecided N.C. race MORE (R-Miss.) and Kathy CastorKatherine (Kathy) Anne CastorOnline school raises new concerns about cyberbullying Democrats ask Facebook to abandon 'Instagram for kids' plans Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech MORE (D-Fla.) have introduced the RAISE Family Caregivers Act (S. 1028, H.R. 3759). It would require the administration, working with an advisory council, to come up with a strategy that includes recommended actions that communities, providers, government, and others are taking and may take to support family caregivers.  Fortunately, it is very close to winning enactment in Congress.

If helping over 40 million people wasn’t impetus enough, the number of family caregivers is about to shoot up thanks to our nation’s changing demographics. In 2010, the ratio of caregivers aged 45-64, who are in the primary caregiving years, to aging seniors aged 80+, who are most likely to need assistance, was about 7:1. That ratio is projected to be 4:1 by 2030 and 3:1 by 2050. We not only have to do right by today’s family caregivers, but also for those with a greater challenge in the future.

Our aging society will need to rely on family caregivers even more in the future. Let’s start today to give them the support they need and deserve.   

Dave Kendall is the senior fellow for Health and Fiscal Policy at Third Way. Jacqueline Lampert is the founder and principal of Lake Street Strategies.