This year we celebrated the holidays under extraordinary circumstances. As the pandemic raged on, we missed the most ordinary things, like baking with family, giving hugs, or sharing a special meal with friends and loved ones. Being separated at a time meant for intergenerational connection and care, difficult as it was, also underscored one of the most important issues that the pandemic put into the spotlight: caregiving.
Our current conversation about caregiving, driven by school shutdowns, Covid outbreaks in nursing homes, and the mass exodus of women from the workforce, may feel new, but the truth is that the root problem isn’t new—it’s just new to the spotlight. For years, we have quietly been struggling—often painfully and in isolation—with the pressures and impossible choices related to caring for our families. From child care to home care, Covid-19 helped us see that, while our families are indeed our responsibility, it’s not our fault that we struggle to manage or afford the care we need. We need public policy solutions, now more than ever.
Each day in the United States, more than 10,000 babies are born, needing constant care, and 10,000 people turn 65 as the baby boomers age into retirement. We also live longer now, thanks to advancements in health care. As more mothers participate in the workforce, and our aging loved ones prefer to age in place rather than in a nursing home, our society’s caregiving needs continue to grow. In fact, care work in the home—specifically home health aides and personal care aides—is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the nation, and expected to increase 34 percent from 2019 to 2029. Meanwhile, most American workers earn less than $50,000 (making it tough to afford child care and long-term care), and most workers in the care economy, disproportionately Black, Latinx, Native, and AAPI women, including many immigrants, earn poverty wages, and cannot care for themselves or their own families in the profession.
Fortunately, a movement of caregivers has been growing alongside the simmering crisis. Led by women and women of color, the movement has been building constituency, power, and solutions from the bottom up, for decades. The Service Employees International Union won the first union contract for home care workers over 30 years ago and today represents over 750,000 home care workers. The National Domestic Workers Alliance has won legislation in 10 states and two cities, protecting the rights of nannies, housecleaners, and home care workers in the private home. Family Values at Work and a Better Balance have won paid leave and paid sick days policies in dozens of cities and states around the country. Momsrising, All Our Kin, Zero to Three, Community Change, American Federation of Teachers, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and coalitions like the Early Care and Education Organizing Network, and the Child Care and Early Learning Coalition are pushing to expand access to quality child care for families. The Arc, AAPD, Alzheimer’s advocates, and the Leadership Council on Aging have long advocated for expanding access to long-term services and supports in the home for the aging and people with disabilities. Caring Across Generations, the National Alliance of Family Caregivers, and AARP together with long-time leaders like Rosalynn Carter advocate on behalf of family caregivers. Caring Across Generations helped win the first family caregiver benefit in Hawai’i and the nation’s first long-term care social insurance fund in Washington state, paving the way for a new vision for care in America, Universal Family Care, an idea that The Nation named the next big idea of 2019.
Since 2011, Caring Across Generations has been gathering families and workers in rooms around the country to spark a national conversation about caregiving. We begin our meetings with the simple prompt, “Share a story about someone in your life who cares for you, and the value of that relationship.” Everyone has a story: the grandparent who helped raise us and is now in a nursing home against their wishes, the single mother who worked day and night to ensure we were cared for, at the expense of her own health. The experience of caring for our loved ones is a universal experience—full of hardship and beauty—but one that we rarely talked about in public, until now.
The pandemic helped us as a nation begin to focus specifically—and broadly—on how we are ensuring our families have the care they need in a holistic way. From first breath to last breath, we all need care at some point in-between, yet our policies and programs were patchwork at best—the infrastructure to support working families didn’t exist, and Covid-19 made us all feel the urgency and pain of it. This is our moment to address our family care needs in America. Our growing movement is uniting to put care at the forefront of our vision for recovery, and there is reason for optimism.
In the midst of presidential campaigning, the now–president- and vice president–elects put forward a 21st Century Caregiving Plan that builds on the advocacy of generations of organizers and addresses the urgency of the moment that we are all in together. The president-elect made caregiving a core pillar in his economic agenda. The plan addresses the need to invest in caregiving across the lifespan, and the need to support good jobs for the care workforce. He didn’t relegate the issue as one of women alone, rather one of economic consequence to all. Our stories and organizing shaped his understanding of care. His own story probably did too: Joe Biden cared for his aging parents, his children through both the tragic loss of his first wife and baby daughter, and his eldest son through Beau’s battle with cancer.
Now he and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris will lead the way forward toward our recovery. Past administrations would prioritize funding infrastructure in times of recession. Our caregiving moment creates a way to reimagine rebuilding. In addition to funding roads and bridges, men in construction hats, and “shovel-ready” projects, we must fund care, the people—families and workers—who need child care, home care, and other supports in order to get back to work and the workers who provide it. Investing in the human infrastructure of the care workforce is the first, most essential opportunity to build back better, including addressing long-standing racial and gender inequities that devalued caregiving to begin with. The time for care is now.