Our ‘infrastructure’ isn’t just steel and concrete. It is the millions of people who provide care services and the millions who rely on them
Tue 6 Apr 2021 06.14 EDT (theguardian.com)
It’s the one thing everyone in Washington can agree on: our nation’s infrastructure is crumbling and in desperate need of repair. The Biden administration has outlined its sweeping plan to overhaul crumbling roads and bridges across America, while building up the clean energy economy of the future, and that’s an important first step in the right direction. Still, as my colleagues begin debating and negotiating over specific details in this proposal, one thing has become really clear to me: the way we think about infrastructure itself needs a rethink.
What we need to understand better as a nation is that our infrastructure does not just look like steel, concrete and transport – it is also the nurturing, patience and diligence of care workers. Care work touches all of our lives from beginning to end, from the unpaid labor of those who raise us as children, childcare workers, teachers, home aides and healthcare workers, to those who care for us in old age and see us through the end of our lives. Care is one of the strongest pillars of our economy, yet those who do this work – disproportionately Black and brown women, often immigrants – are under-supported, undervalued and under-compensated, if compensated at all.
Just as our physical infrastructure is crumbling and requires substantial reinvestment in a 21st-century economy, our care infrastructure is fundamentally broken. As the only industrialized country in the world without a national paid family and medical leave program, only 17% of our people have paid family leave through their employers. Hundreds of thousands face daunting waitlists for essential home care. Childcare is the highest household expense for families in much of the United States. And the median annual pay of childcare and home care workers is $25,510 and $17,200, respectively, leading to high turnover and reliance on public assistance.
This does not have to be a moment of total desolation. It can be a groundbreaking opportunity to rethink our entire economy and the workers who support it
As the Biden administration unveils its plan for job creation and infrastructure, it can and must center care work as part of rebuilding the country. More than 550,000 Americans have died and 30 million have been infected with Covid-19. We are staring down decades of trauma, grief and long-term health impacts from the past year. But this does not have to be a moment of total desolation. It can be a groundbreaking opportunity to rethink our entire economy and the workers who support it.
As part of the next investment in infrastructure, Congress and the Biden administration can and should take major steps toward addressing these longstanding injustices, including passing universal childcare and pre-K, six months of paid family leave, and free, high-quality home and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities, along with Medicare for All. Strong care programs also boost the economy: investing in care work invests in us all. A recent study found that for each public dollar invested in the care sector, $2.80 in total economic activity is created; roughly speaking, five additional jobs are created for every 10 jobs created in care work.
We must go beyond incrementalism and create new, universal, public programs that treat care as a right – bringing New Deal-level of ambition and imagination to the care economy. The New Deal vastly improved the quality of life for many and led to increased prosperity, but key components excluded communities of color. What would we be able to accomplish, what limitless potential could we achieve, if the prosperity of the New Deal was extended to all?
Indeed, that is precisely the aim of today’s movement for a Green New Deal. In the congressional resolution I recently introduced with Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Care for All Agenda, I made the case that care investments are a crucial part of transformative climate action. We cannot build a thriving, 21st-century economy without a solid foundation of care to sustain us.
In fact, care jobs should be thought of as green jobs: they are already relatively low-carbon, and are becoming even more essential as we cope with the health impacts of climate change. We need to make these fast-growing jobs the high-paying, unionized jobs of the future, just as we do in the green energy and manufacturing sectors. Fundamentally, the next economy will be about caring for each other, our communities, and the planet. That means we need to think of climate and care investments as comprising one holistic, integrated agenda – and not prioritize one over the other in the recovery effort.
Additionally, the Biden administration can usher in a paradigm shift in how we measure and evaluate our economy. The United Nations has estimated that the economic value of unpaid care work accounts for as much as 40% of GDP. Scholarship has repeatedly questioned the value of economic modeling based on GDP and stock market trends but without evaluations of quality of life, satisfaction and health of working people. What if we rooted our economy in solving problems and promoting collective wellbeing, rather than profit-making to benefit the few? What if we invested massively in the arts, research and restoring the natural world – and gave everyone the time and economic freedom to care for their loved ones, and unleash their full talents?
Care can and must be at the center of the rebirth of our country. As Joe Biden unveils his next ambitious plan for rebuilding the economy, he can shape the next vision of American exceptionalism by extending prosperity to those forced to live at the margins. Human potential is unlimited, especially in a nation as wealthy as ours. We have the resources to ensure high-quality care to our people and a life of dignity to those who provide it. Let’s get it done.
- Jamaal Bowman, a US congressman, represents New York’s 16th congressional district