WHAT IS the value of care? Or, to put it another way, how much is it worth to ensure your child is safe, your parent is aging with dignity, and that you can focus on your own health should an issue emerge? For many here in New Hampshire these are not merely theoretical questions.
Staying healthy throughout the coronavirus pandemic and caring for ourselves or our loved ones is more important than any dollar figure can express. Still, bills must be paid. Without policies and resources to help families meet caregiving needs — also known as our care infrastructure — too many U.S. workers are forced to make the difficult choice between caring for their families or earning a paycheck.
It has been decades since any meaningful public investment was made in our care infrastructure, which includes paid family and medical leave, child care, and home-based services and supports. Now is the time to shore up the care system — precisely what President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan seek to do.
Every day that we fail to make these investments, more workers across the country are crushed by increasing demands on their time and the lack of caregiving support.
As a researcher, I collect data on the care needs and challenges of families in New Hampshire. What I have found is concerning: Too many New Hampshire workers lack access to paid leave to care for themselves (35%), a family member (63%), or a new child (56%). At the same time, my research shows that nearly 80% of New Hampshire residents support a paid family and medical leave insurance program, though such a program does not exist — yet.
Though the data was collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the past year has only deepened the cracks in our care infrastructure — making the need to act impossible to ignore. Without a paid family and medical leave system, New Hampshire workers will continue to face work-life conflicts between providing necessary care to their loved ones and foregoing critical income. That could mean costly turnover for employers and less in workers’ pockets to spend at local businesses, depriving the broader economy of a badly needed boost.
Care work is the invisible engine behind our economy. Yet paid caregivers — many of whom are women and workers of color — are devalued, and the care system, already fragile, has been decimated by a pandemic.
Child care providers are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States. Individuals in paid care jobs earn less than other workers with similar credentials, characteristics, and demographics. This is also true for our essential workers in care jobs, who we often thank with road signs or applause yet neglect to thank with livable wages.
The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights the dire need to invest in the U.S. care infrastructure and the centrality of paid and unpaid care work to our economy and family functioning. When 860,000 women left the labor force in September 2020, the essential role that teachers and child care providers play in supporting women’s labor force participation became indisputable.
Likewise, demand for unpaid family care shot up as loved ones got sick or regular caregiving arrangements were disrupted. Here in New Hampshire, between January 20 and March 1 of this year, more than 15,000 individuals were not working due to the need to care for a child. Our state’s economic recovery depends on enabling those who want to work to do so, as does our families’ economic stability.
For too long, care work has been invisible and undervalued. It’s time to invest in our care infrastructure. It’s time to value care.