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Campaigning for Care

October 8, 2012

Back in 2004, a presidential candidate acknowledged the changing organization of our care economy. “In one of the most dramatic shifts our society has seen,” explained George W. Bush in his final speech at the Republican National Convention, “two-thirds of moms also work outside the home.” He went on to proclaim, “Government must take your side.”

Perspectives from expert contributors.

Neither the moderator nor either of the contenders in last week’s campaign debate raised the issue. But considering the strain most American families are under, it’s urgent that the candidates confront it.

Most working people in the United States shoulder some responsibility for the care of a dependent. They tend to the needs of children or grandchildren, parents or grandparents, spouses or siblings, friends or neighbors.

Relatively few wage earners can delegate such responsibilities entirely to a stay-at-home spouse or to a paid assistant. As I and other contributors explain in a new book on care provision, low-wage earners are especially squeezed, because their employers often don’t provide such benefits as paid family leave or sick days.

According to recent data collected by the American Time Use Survey, about 65 percent of workers without a high-school diploma and 39 percent of high-school graduates with no college lack access to any kind of paid leave from employment.

We tell single mothers that we won’t provide cash assistance unless they engage in paid employment. Yet many cannot find jobs, much less jobs that give them the flexibility they need. In 2011 the unemployment rate for mothers who are unmarried, divorced or live apart from their spouses was 15 percent.

Many policy experts, political activists, and voters (including me) are trying to insert debate on these issues – along with a broader look at care provision for children, people with disabilities and the elderly – into the fall election campaign.

Representatives of several different care advocacy groups in Washington organized a brainstorming session to increase political visibility.

Groups including the Family Values @Work, Caring Across Generations, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Direct Care Alliance are mobilizing a wide spectrum of voters, emphasizing the common interests of those working hard to care for others but also struggling to pay their bills.

Almost by definition, “dependents” can’t simply buy what they need in the market, and care provision seldom takes the form of a straightforward market transaction. Our book offers evidence that those who take on care work often pay an economic penalty.

The Caring Economy Campaign publicized six explicit questions covering topics as varied as high levels of child poverty, the economic vulnerability of family caregivers and poor wages and working conditions of paid home-care workers.

An enterprising young woman, Jessica Smith of Denver started a petition drive on Change.org to ask presidential candidates about family leave insurance and sick time.

These issues are not being plucked out of some laundry hamper for the first time. They’ve been through spin cycles and political wringers on the state and local level, leaving many small victory banners waving in the wind.

California put in place paid family leave in 2002, New Jersey in 2008. The state of Washington has approved a similar policy, though it has yet to be enacted.

In 2006, San Francisco established a paid sick-leave policy that now gets favorable reviews from most employers. The District of Columbia followed suit in 2007, and Seattle in 2011. In 2008, Milwaukee voted in favor of a paid sick-leave policy, although Gov. Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature then passed a law stripping cities of the right to create such a policy.

Many members of the New York City Council favor a paid sick-days bill – enough to override a mayoral veto – but the current council speaker has so far been exercising her power to prevent the issue from coming to a vote.

In 2011 Connecticut became the first state requiring paid sick leave.

Efforts to improve working conditions for low-wage care workers have also moved forward, though they continue to elicit stiff opposition from corporate lobbyists. New York has established a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights; Gov. Jerry Brown of California recently vetoed a similar bill.

The Labor Department is considering a rule change to the Fair Labor Standards Act that would extend minimum wage and overtime protections to many paid home-care workers who are currently exempt. While President Obama supports this rule change, he has said little about it in the campaign.

In last week’s debate he did say, “There are some things we do better together.” Surely efforts to build a more equitable and sustainable care economy belong on that list.

 

Nancy Folbre, economist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

 Nancy Folbre is an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She recently edited  and contributed to “For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States.

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