The care economy as an infrastructure investment

The care economy as an infrastructure investment
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Infrastructure investment is at the top of the agenda for the new administration and for members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, as it’s a tried-and-true strategy for creating jobs while fulfilling a public need in the midst of a deep recession. Few policymakers question the fact that our nation’s physical infrastructure – roads, rails, bridges and water systems — are in need of repair after decades of disinvestment and investing in those systems will create jobs, albeit temporary, while improving systems we need to ensure a functioning economy.  

But our nation faces another equally pressing infrastructure priority that can no longer be ignored. We need a functioning “care infrastructure” — paid family and medical leave, access to affordable, quality childcare, long-term care — especially in the home and community — and better wages and benefits for care workers who provide the services we all need.

Before the start of the recession, women were playing a key role in the strength of the national economy and the economic security of families. In December 2019, they were the majority of the civilian non farm workforce and they were more likely to be bringing in all or part of a family’s income than ever before. This was especially true for Black mothers, four out of five of whom were the sole or primary source of their family’s income. 

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For the past year, the COVID-induced recession has been a ‘she-cession.’ Women lost jobs at a higher rate than men because they worked in customer-facing sectors of the service economy — restaurants, retail, education and healthcare — that were hit first and hardest. In fact, two in five of the 12.1 million jobs lost by women between February and April had not returned by the end of 2020 and all 156,000 of the jobs lost in December were held by women. Black and Latinx women were disproportionately impacted by job losses. 

In addition to losing jobs, women were forced out of the labor force entirely at four times the rate of men, most often due to the fact that caregiving responsibilities disproportionately fell on women. Between January and December 2020, more than two million women left the labor force entirely, including 564,000 Black women and 317,000 Latina women. 

So let’s review our rationale for investment in infrastructure as an anti-recessionary strategy.  First, infrastructure investment creates jobs. Granted, deep investment in our physical infrastructure will produce large numbers of construction jobs but those jobs typically go to men, partially due to a long history of gender discrimination in the construction trades. In fact, women hold less than 10 percent of construction jobs and most of those are lower paying administrative positions.  

The second rationale: infrastructure investment addresses a public need. It is true, our nation sorely needs physical infrastructure investment. But we also need investment in our systems of support for human capital — for workers — to enable our economy to function. Each year, about 4 million children are born and 4 million people turn 65.  Despite the growing demand for systems to care for children, people with disabilities and older adults so that parents and adult family members can work and support their families, the U.S. has one of the weakest systems of support among advanced economies and COVID has brought our patchwork systems to a breaking point.

Today, policymakers are standing by as women are forced out of the workforce, with detrimental impacts on families, communities and our national economy. When comprehensive paid family and medical leave, childcare and home care aren’t available or are unaffordable, it is overwhelmingly women who take on the role of being unpaid caretakers for children, parents and other family members in need. As a result, they’re forced to leave their jobs, losing income, health benefits and opportunities for career advancement, in addition to other critical benefits like retirement savings.

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So it’s time to think bigger about how we define infrastructure investment and ask who benefits. While we’re excited to see President Biden’s infrastructure plan shaping up in a way that focuses on climate change and targets funding to communities that need it most. We also need to invest in systems that support women as workers and caregivers, especially women of color who bear a disproportionate burden of responsibility for care in America. 

A broad swath of advocates are coming together to call for deep public investment in our nation’s care infrastructure — to expand emergency paid family and medical leave and make it permanently available to all workers; invest in childcare workers, businesses and nonprofit providers so that they can meet the nation’s growing demand; invest in home and community-based long-term care supports and services so that older adults and people with disabilities can remain safe and live independently in the community; and value all care workers, through public support for living wage jobs with benefits and a union, so that they can provide the quality care our families need, while ensuring the economic security of their own.  

Research shows that investing in caregiving systems produces twice as many jobs per dollar invested than physical infrastructure investment. Building better systems of care support for American workers will enable them to go back into the workforce, bring in income to their families, spend more in their communities and contribute to our nation’s recovery. 

Guaranteeing that the caregiving jobs are paid a living wage, provide benefits and are unionized will ensure that workers have power, security and dignity. And the jobs that are created will be accessible to all workers, including immigrant workers and especially women of color who are disproportionately represented in the care workforce and the most impacted by job layoffs during the recession.

We’ve been calling for a better deal for caregivers for a long time, and now is the time to take bold steps forward. There is growing support for investing in women and better supporting their unpaid labor from the public, advocacy leaders and from leading women in entertainment, activism, entrepreneurship and more.

We’re already seeing the Biden administration embrace bold, equity driven policies. It’s time to build on this approach by ensuring that women — especially women of color — and their families can access caregiving support and it's time to increase the number of well-paid, unionized caregiving jobs.

When we invest in the care infrastructure, we’ll create critically needed jobs, provide critically needed care, and we’ll be a step closer to building an equitable economy that works for everyone.

Heather McCulloch is the founder and executive director of Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. Ai-jen Poo is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations. She is a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur Genius Award and the author of the 2015 book, “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America.”