The Biden administration’s American Jobs Plan contains what might seem like a surprise: $400 billion for “caregiving infrastructure.” While some might scratch their heads to see eldercare and childcare listed alongside roads and bridges, this reframing is a critical one — and something for which care advocates have been calling for years. It also ought to make the U.S. business community sit up and take notice.
If it seems counterintuitive to think of care as infrastructure, consider that our connections to each other are essential to a functioning society. Support for care is as vital, as wide-ranging, and as badly neglected as our interstate highway system. Most every worker at every job in America has a family with elders, children or someone who is critically ill needing care—and if there’s nobody to care for those vulnerable people, employees can’t go to work and families suffer.
Rethinking and revaluing care in all its forms is long overdue. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as we all isolated in our homes, overburdened by caring for our families, I’ve been reminded powerfully of my years tending my husband through cancer and life-threatening complications of stem cell transplant. I had to quit working; my time and energy went to juggling his care and that of our kids, producing financial strain and extreme stress. I am hardly alone in this struggle with care; the challenge is vast and systemic.
The powerful strain of individualism in American culture means we often rely solely on a single person as a family caregiver, or on our siloed close families, in times of crisis. The pandemic exposed the cracks in our broken systems of caring for each other. The effects of those cracks are enormous: some 53 million Americans are unpaid family caregivers for an adult friend or family member. That number will only grow as the baby boomers continue to age, and GenX and millennial caregivers will increasingly be squeezed by care responsibilities and associated financial pressures.
As I became keenly aware through my family’s ordeal, and as the pandemic made brutally clear, the work of those family caregivers receives almost no societal support, nor does childcare. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a policy mandating paid maternity leave, and one of very few without a paid family leave policy. Moreover, paid care workers are underpaid and have few job protections.
The Biden administration is starting to deliver on its campaign promises to rethink social supports for care in all its forms: unpaid family caregiving for the ill, eldercare, childcare, paid care work, and more. But there’s much more to do — and the business community has a crucial opportunity to lead.
Care isn’t just at the top of the president’s policy agenda; it should also be a priority for the private sector as it seeks to recover from the shocks of 2020 and the ongoing pandemic. Companies have an opportunity to lead by supporting employees who care for family members. Doing so is the right thing to do morally and makes good business sense.
Hundreds of companies have recognized the importance of providing more support for employees, calling on Congress to enact paid leave as part of pandemic relief. A coalition of small businesses has also advocated for publicly funded paid leave that would help them compete to attract workers.
A national paid-leave policy has wide bipartisan support, and the FAMILY Act, a leave bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa de Lauro (D-Conn.) is before Congress now. But as Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh recently argued, companies don’t need to wait for a mandate to enact strong paid-leave policies of their own. Currently only 21% of workers at private companies have access to paid family leave from their employers. By implementing their own policies investing in their employees, companies can pave the way toward a comprehensive paid-leave policy.
Providing family leave and other benefits that help employees care for their families attracts and retains valuable workers. It’s a particularly important measure for growing diversity and inclusivity, since caregivers are disproportionately women and even more disproportionately women of color.
Our year of the pandemic has exposed, in painful detail, the economic and emotional damage wrought by failures to support care. The millions of women who have left the workforce since March 2020 attest that the cost is heavy for individuals and families as well as the companies losing valuable employees.
The devastation of what some have called the “she-cession” underscores a pre-existing phenomenon: Some sources estimate that more than 50% of women who serve as unpaid family caregivers restrict their working hours or give up work entirely.
Paid family leave is far from a panacea for addressing the gaps in our systems of care, but it’s an accessible and important start — and one in which both the public and private sectors can play key roles. Advances from government and business can complement each other in other arenas as well. Businesses can look toward offering other benefits that support care, such as flexibility in work hours, mental-health support, and robust, employer-supported health and long-term care insurance coverage. Meanwhile, the private sector should support further federal policy changes, such as tax credits and Social Security credits for caregivers.
Spurred by the glaring failures of the pandemic and the need for an economic recovery, the U.S. has a unique opportunity now to right the big wrong of how we’ve underfunded and neglected our care infrastructure. Caring for our elders, our children and the vulnerable is integral to our humanity — and the societal and economic costs of this systemic neglect are immeasurable. We must care more about care.
Kate Washington is the author of Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America. (Beacon Press, 2021)