Caregiving Advocate Ai-jen Poo: How Caregivers Can Influence the Coming Elections
A poll released last November, conducted by the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement and Caring Across Generations, revealed that our country is woefully unprepared for the cost and burden of caregiving at every stage of life.
According to the report, we are experiencing the widespread impact of insufficient support for a nation of caregivers laboring under high financial and emotional stress. A broad segment of American families is desperate for solutions, signaling a major opportunity for candidates to tap into this powerful voting bloc by prioritizing caregiving issues.
We turned to Caring Across Generations co-founder Ai-jen Poo to put the current crisis in perspective and offer advice on how we (and our nation’s leaders) can turn things around.
1. You recently addressed our current “caregiving epidemic" with Maria in an op-ed for USA Today, stating "caregivers are largely invisible and ignored in political conversations.” What is our “state of caregiving” and how should it be addressed in our current administration?
We have a state of caregiving where millions of families across the country are being pushed, emotionally and financially, toward the edge of a cliff, and they often feel like it is their fault. More of us are needing to find care for our loved ones–whether for our babies as we return to work, for our parents who are living longer and aging at home, or for our loved ones with disabilities–and finding it impossible to do so. The truth is that our decision-makers who shape our policies, and our culture of invisibilizing caregiving, is failing our families. But the time is ripe for change.
As the Baby Boomer generation ages and millennials start to expand their families, we need more care than ever before. Families are struggling with this increased need without increased support. We’re all trying to find good care, if we can afford it, or facing the choice between earning a paycheck and being there for a loved one, which is no real choice at all. And we haven’t prepared for the fact that it could get even harder. According to a recent poll conducted for the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement and Caring Across Generations, two in three (66%) Americans have not started saving any money for long-term care.
Being able to take paid time off from work is still a scarce benefit, despite the momentum among advocates. That same poll found that family caregivers spend on average nearly 36 hours providing care each week, that’s almost a full-time job! For the 69% of caregivers who are employed, this is on top of a paying job. It is no wonder that our nation’s caregivers are financially and emotionally burning out at a cost to their own health.
Despite the high cost of care, the professional care workforce struggles to support their own families on the poverty wages they earn. Home care workers earn an average annual wage of $16,200; it’s no wonder we often lose our best caregivers to other professions like fast food or retail. The care workforce–disproportionately women and women of color–is under increasing pressure as the need for their vital work increases, too. Our poll found that 73% of Americans believe there are not enough caregiving professionals to meet the demand.
The good news is that although our families are being pushed to the edge, we can – and are – beginning to push back. Common-sense, sustainable solutions that will work do exist; it’s now up to us to demand them! At Caring Across Generations, we have created a plan for Universal Family Care, which would efficiently support the care needs of every member of our family. It’s simple: Universal Family Care is a public, family care insurance fund, similar to Social Security, which we’d all contribute to, to help us all afford the care we need when we need it, instead of panicking at the most vulnerable times in our lives. It would cover everything from childcare and eldercare, to support for people living with disabilities and paid leave, essentially all the costs associated with caring for our families across generations and abilities.
Fortunately, this issue has bipartisan support and touches every family; 2 in 3 Americans have been a caregiver. It’s time we moved forward on solutions like Universal Family Care, which were developed by caregivers and workers through organizations like Caring Across Generations and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Importantly, Universal Family Care would not only help families, it would rightfully value the women who do the work that makes all work possible. We are ready, and the people we elect to represent us need to feel the urgency of this issue, just as it is felt every single day by those struggling to care for the ones they love.
2. Why is “caregiving” increasingly becoming everyone’s issue?
Caregiving is a universal human need. That has always been true. What’s changing is that our need for care is growing exponentially, and the economic conditions and cultural norms that once sustained caregiving in our families are no longer relevant.
Many more families relied on a woman staying at home, full-time, to take on their caregiving responsibilities, and employers and elected officials followed suit in how they designed their policies. Today’s families look different, both out of necessity and choice: most of us need two working parents to stay financially secure, but our workplaces and social policies have not adjusted to account for someone still needing to do the care work in our homes.
These changes, as well as our leaders’ inability to catch up, are reflected in the numbers: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, home care is one of the fastest-growing occupations in the country and is projected to add over one million new jobs to the US economy over the next decade. And yet, we have a huge shortage of care workers because the job conditions are so poor. Additionally, only 17 percent of all workers can take paid time off from work to care for a new child, loved one, or themselves. We must value the time and work it takes to care for our families so that the economy can actually work for us.
3. How should our 2020 candidates be addressing/handling the topic?
This issue is an incredible opportunity for a candidate! It is universal; it doesn’t significantly affect people of one political party more than another, and it is deeply personal.
I’d like to see more candidates share their own experiences, and consider holistic approaches like Universal Family Care. Many have taken smaller bites at the apple, releasing proposals addressing component solutions, which is wonderful, but just as important is talking more frequently about them. Caregivers and the working families they support have been bearing this cost alone for too long. Presidential candidates should fight to be the nominee who will get this done, and loudly prioritize solutions for our families to demonstrate that they can truly relate to them and care about them.
4. In your view, how will things need to change in order to avert an overall crisis in America?
At the core, two things need to change.
First, for the care workforce to grow to meet families’ needs, care work must be good work. Care workers should have the ability to take pride in the work they do, earn living wages with benefits, and take care of themselves and their families on the income they earn. The care of one family should not come at the expense of the care of another.
Second, people who need care must have flexible, affordable options remembering that no one family is the same. Policymakers will ask, “how can we afford it?” But we must ask, “how will we afford the status quo?” We are already paying gravely in avoidable health costs, strains on other social safety nets, and caregivers stepping out of the workforce. Investing in our care infrastructure will save us in so many ways.
Our families are worth it; if we can say yes to that, we can avert a crisis. The decisions we make today will make a defining difference in the critical decades to come.
This Q&A was featured in the February 2nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.