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Why care needs to be at the heart of the new economy

The work of care is at a critical juncture in our economy and our society.

Why care needs to be at the heart of the new economy
[Photo: st_lux/iStock]
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Before the pandemic, most of us experienced the task of finding and managing care for our families to be a personal responsibility, shouldered alone in the privacy of our homes. And, if for some reason we could not afford childcare, or care for a parent or a loved one who had developed a chronic illness or disability, or if we did not have the ability to take a leave to care for a family member, we blamed ourselves. Either we had the wrong job, we failed to plan and save enough, or we somehow had failed in our responsibility of supporting our own family, regardless of our economic realities.

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We were a nation of families simmering in a quiet crisis, isolated and yet connected across these daily care challenges. When the pandemic hit, our deeply ingrained expectations that women would naturally shoulder these responsibilities were dramatically exposed and rightfully questioned. And we began to see and understand the true value of generations of caregiving labor, both paid and unpaid. What we collectively realized is that care is the foundation for our economy; it is what enables men and women to work and grow our economy. But this foundation has never been secure because we undervalue the very people who make it work.

The pandemic exacerbated this quiet crisis, making it more visible and more dangerous. As nursing homes closed and families struggled to find the care their loved ones needed, the fragility of the care economy was revealed for all to see: care workers without protections struggling to keep their own families safe even as they worked to take care of other families, families without support in finding care they desperately needed,  and an entire economy struggling with keeping workers at work when the care infrastructure they relied on was in collapse.

The conditions of the care economy are no accident, they are by design. Working families have always struggled to afford childcare, and our collective inability to care for the aging, the ill, and people with disabilities has been a silent driver of inequality for decades. Care professionals work for poverty wages despite the overwhelming and growing demand for care. The care workforce has remained majority Black and other women of color, long after the days when enslaved Black women performed domestic work in a plantation economy. Without paid family and medical leave, workers risk losing their jobs if a loved one needs care. Care is and always has been the work that must be done before work outside the home can begin, yet it has never been considered essential infrastructure, and the workers never treated as essential workers.

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But what if care were treated as infrastructure? What if we invested in our care economy as the foundation of our economy, the way we invest in building and maintaining the roads, bridges, and pipes that we currently consider infrastructure. We would ensure care workers were receiving living wages, with benefits and protections, so that this workforce can not only sustain the demand of today but grow to meet the increasing demand for care in the years ahead, with pride. We would provide financial support to families needing care—at all stages of life, from paid family and medical leave to childcare to support for people with disabilities and elder care, through a publicly supported, universally accessible care program, not unlike Social Security.

We would ensure care workers are fully protected and have a voice in their workplaces—especially when working in a family home with an individual employer—so that expectations of employers are clear and employees know they are entitled to the respect and dignity they deserve. As families in every state, from every background begin to look to their future care needs as their families grow or age, they could expect to have access to the care they need through a support infrastructure that not only addresses long-standing racial and gender inequities but also secures our economy and invests in our long-term health and well-being.

Building a robust care infrastructure is not only a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative. The pandemic showed us exactly what the impact is when our care infrastructure is vulnerable, as women were pushed out of the workforce in record numbers in what has become known as the first female recession. The impact on our economy is real and significant: the Center for American Progress estimates that the cost of lost wages would be $64.5 billion if conditions for families do not improve. Our economy needs a reliable workforce, and that includes women, who fill jobs on which businesses rely. Good care enables good work throughout the economy, especially for women. Especially in occupations most commonly held by women, from nurses to administrative assistants, from managers to retail workers and teachers.

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The “future of work” conversation has been marked in recent years by an over-indexing of the impact of automation and artificial intelligence. But the robots aren’t coming for care work: this work requires empathy that will never be replaced by an algorithm. A 2016 study by McKinsey on which fields are most likely to be automated found that the “automation potential” of home health aide jobs, for example, is only 11%, leaving at least 89% of the job requiring a human worker. Our fixation on technology has distracted us from the necessity of the emotional dimension of care. Caring for others is a fundamentally human activity, which means care jobs will be human-centric jobs, which means care jobs will be the jobs of the future.

Most of us never imagined a day when we wouldn’t be able to go to work, when our schools would be closed, and entire cities’ economies shut down as we sheltered in our homes for months. We never imagined losing access to the care (and care workers) that made our lives—at home and work—and our economies function. We can’t unsee what we’ve seen, and that has created a space, and a responsibility, to imagine something new and better, that invests in and secures the health of our families, through care, as a universal need we invest in and share collectively across the nation.

At this critical juncture we must decide: will we choose a future of work where families struggle to care for their loved ones in isolation, or will we choose a future of work where the economy can rely on a resilient workforce supported by the care infrastructure that we deserve. Where care workers are compensated with wages that reflect the value of care to our society, to our economy, and to our way of life. Where women aren’t expected, or forced, to bear the cost of care in isolation and their contributions are valued. Where every person knows that when—not if—they need care, they can expect access to an infrastructure of care, in the same way that they expect access to the energy and transportation systems that support our way of life. Where we invest in care as a way of securing our health rather than responding to a crisis. This future—of work and of care—is what our economy needs and what future generations deserve.

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Ai-jen Poo is an award-winning organizer, author, and next-generation labor and women’s movement leader and serves as the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations.

Palak Shah is a social entrepreneur, leader in the movement for workers’ rights in the new economy, and serves as social innovations director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and founding director of NDWA Labs.

How Healthy Is the Future of Work? is an essay series featuring people working at the cutting edge of their fields, sharing how emerging trends will affect the health of our country’s workers and workplaces in the future.

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The series is curated by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The authors’ views are their own.