President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan seeks to revitalize manufacturing and decarbonize the atmosphere. But one of its most vital elements is how it would transform the care economy. The state has always shaped how care is provided, but in this country the sector has been malformed since its creation. Biden’s proposal, following decades of work by activists and academics, would establish new preschools, build day cares, and fund the care of the elderly and disabled, but it also goes beyond that: It would fundamentally restructure care work in America.
Throughout the 19th century, the government played a central role in defining care work. Land grants supported settler families, and states opened poorhouses for the elderly. But two developments in particular created the foundation of contemporary care policy. First, in the late 19th century, the idea took hold that only impoverished families should be provided with day care. This resulted in the persistent notion, as the University of Maryland historian Sonya Michel put it, that “the presence of mothers in the workforce is…a ‘social problem’” that needs to be solved. To this day, pundits debate family policy within the world of poverty legislation—not as something that’s crucial for everyone.
The second arose from the incomplete nature of the New Deal. With its support for unionization and social insurance, the New Deal brought new rights to the workplace, but it largely ignored the household. It also excluded many domestic and care workers from the labor and legal protections that were being created. As a result, as care work expanded in the mid-century period, lawmakers assumed that private spending—bolstered by tax credits as necessary—would be sufficient to support care work.
For decades, as policy-makers have tried to tackle the problem of care work, they’ve been dealing with these unspoken assumptions—namely, that public aid should go only toward those in poverty, and that all other aid for care work should support private spending. These faulty premises have created a system in which Americans need to quit their jobs to care for children or other family members. According to one 2016 paper, the hourly cost of child care rose 32 percent between 1990 and 2010, and during this time mothers dropped out of the workforce in such high numbers that it led to a 5 percent decline in the total employment of women.
Overturning these beliefs can help us find our way out of the current situation. First, we need to formalize support for families and children as part of social insurance that is available to all. An easy step would be to take the one-year child allowances in the American Rescue Plan and make them permanent and easier for people to access monthly. The model here is the way Social Security works at its best, such as with its retirement pensions, where the benefits are clear and broadly accessible. This, in turn, will create a larger constituency that will defend the program and ensure that it is maintained over time.
Second, the government should provide care work facilities directly. Biden’s plan includes funding for government-run day care and pre-K. Relying on private providers can lead to care deserts as well as to price squeezes in the areas with more demand. These problems can’t be solved by giving people more money, as parents’ expenses are large and concentrated in the early years. Direct public provisioning of care work can ensure a baseline of quality and access that simply subsidizing the private sector can’t achieve.
Finally, we should fix the disparity in the legal world and make sure care workers are given the legal rights and recognition that all workers deserve. Biden’s jobs proposal notes that the home- and community-based services under Medicaid can support well-paying caregiving jobs that include benefits and the ability to bargain collectively. As the Groundwork Collaborative’s Rakeen Mabud and the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Lenore Palladino found, investments in care work could create 2 million jobs, which would disproportionately go to women of color. Ensuring benefits and protections for these jobs would provide economic security for individual workers and their communities.
But to do all this, we must start by viewing care work as an essential component not just of the economy but of life itself. It requires just as much—if not more—investment as any other part of a modern economy. Biden’s American Jobs Plan is a start down this path.