Think of someone you know who cares for another person. This might be a husband or wife who quit their job to care for an ailing partner, or a young parent who leaves the workforce to raise their newborn. It might be an adult devoting their whole day to helping an aging parent. Whatever the type of care or who’s performing it, there’s a common denominator: These people are doing work, but not getting paid.
Which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant to the economy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: The AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that in 2013, the value of unpaid caregiving totaled around $470 billion, often due to the fact that people who volunteer to care for loved ones alleviate some dependency on public programs like Medicaid, or services like nonprofit home care or food assistance.
But the people giving care are economically overlooked—especially when it comes to accessing support from the federal government. While circumstances vary by state, it’s often a prerequisite for people to collect benefits like food stamps or housing assistance that they be receiving a paycheck or actively seeking labor. People generally need to work and earn money for at least 10 years to collect Social Security benefits. The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the most popular and effective poverty-alleviating programs in the country, giving up to around $6,000 per household back to low-income families annually in the form of a tax credit. But you need to have some income before you can get it.
Policies like this are intended to incentivize people to work and contribute to the economy. But they ignore the fact that unpaid labor itself contributes to the economy. Part of the reason it’s often disregarded in policies, says Emily Rusch, executive director of CALPIRG, a nonprofit advocacy organization that advocates for worker and consumer protections, is that “this type of work is often done by women, and particularly women of color.” Culturally in the U.S., she adds, it’s long been the norm that women are expected to do labor like home caregiving for free.
But that’s starting to change. A number of recent policy proposals are now pushing for the recognition of home caregiving as economically important labor, and for it to be included as a category of work that renders someone eligible for a tax credit. The Economic Security Project, led by Chris Hughes, Dorian Warren, and Natalie Foster, is proposing a comprehensive EITC expansion that they’re calling a “cost of living refund.”
ESP also supports the work of Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, who introduced the EITC Modernization Act of 2018 to both increase the amount of money people can get through the credit, and to expand the eligibility to more people. Chief among that latter category are caregivers, who often have to cut back on their own income-earning labor or quit altogether to provide for someone else. “This bill begins to recognize that the overlooked and often thankless work of caregiving is essential to our society,” Watson Coleman said in a release about the act. Her bill also would expand the credit to students, roughly 3 million of which in the U.S. struggle financially while trying to get through college. And it would give people the option to receive payments monthly, instead of all at once, to help support people throughout the year. Similar changes are also happening in California: ESP advocated for the state to expand its EITC and switch to a monthly payment structure, which Governor Gavin Newsom is doing, and CALPIRG worked with Assemblymember Buffy Wicks to propose a bill that would expand the definition of work to include caregivers.
While modernizing and expanding the EITC is becoming an increasingly policy avenue for addressing the economic needs of unpaid workers, it’s not the only one. Representative Rashida Tlaib in Michigan is proposing, though her BOOST Act (previously known as the LIFT+ Act), an approach that more closely mirrors basic income. Her policy would provide people living on low incomes a flat annual stipend of up to $6,000 from the government. But whereas the EITC only starts paying out if people are earning income, under Tlaib’s bill, people earning $0 would still be eligible for the lowest amount of the stipend: $3,000 per year. (Senator Kamala Harris proposed a similar bill, called the LIFT Act, but it crucially leaves off the stipend for non-earners.) It’s not enough to live on, by any means, but for people living in extreme poverty, it could help with expenses like food and housing. And it’s broad enough to capture people, like caregivers, who are currently uncompensated for their work. “We have a crisis in this country. Far too many people are living in poverty and many more are an emergency away from finding themselves struggling to put food on the table,” Tlaib tells Fast Company. “We need bold policies to solve our most challenging issues, and the BOOST Act is a way to do just that.”
“As a society, we need to make sure we’re recognizing the kind of work that supports our collective well-being, and that’s where caregiving is a glaring example of real work that’s needed, and has real benefits for society,” Rusch says. This idea has even gained bipartisan traction, she adds, as conservatives recognize the economic value of in-home care and the fact that it can alleviate other pressures on government resources. It’s not just enough to expand the EITC and ignore the fact that it doesn’t provide for people who do important, unpaid work, like caregiving. Changing the definition of work that qualifies for the credit, though, “is one simple way of recognizing the value of caregiving work,” she says.