Infrastructure is what is needed to keep our society running, allow us to innovate, and grow our economy. Traditionally, the term conjures up images of construction—of bridges, roads, and utilities. But with the recent announcement of the American Jobs Plan, President Biden has brought the infrastructure needs of our country into the twenty-first century by including a massive federal infusion—$400 billion—to expand access to home and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities and an additional $25 billion for child care facilities and supply building. This investment, along with funding for physical infrastructure projects, recognizes that our society doesn’t hum, grow, or thrive without the infrastructure that supports the care needs of our families.
Care workers—often Black, brown, and immigrant women, and always among the lowest-paid workers in our country—kept our nation running during the last year of the pandemic. Working in jobs caring for our loved ones in nursing homes, child care centers, and in homes and communities at high risk of transmission, frontline care workers suffered some of the highest rates of loss of life and loved ones from COVID-19, while experiencing extreme economic pain.
President Biden’s inclusion of home-care workers—and his explicit recognition that we not only need more care providers, but we must also provide care workers with “a long-overdue raise, stronger benefits, and an opportunity to organize or join a union and collectively bargain”—honors their contribution to our economy in this long and difficult year of patchwork, makeshift care. It acknowledges the need to invest in care as both an individual and social responsibility. And it’s an essential element to a robust recovery, creating twice as many jobs per dollar as traditional infrastructure due to the labor-intensive nature of the work.
Still, this boost to the care economy is only the first step. Over the last year, frontline caregivers struggled to do the best they could for very little pay, at around $10 per hour on average. With a scant supply of care options and schools shuttered, women were forced to leave the workforce to be unpaid caregivers for their children or ill family members. The pandemic crashed down the precarious house of cards women were using to make it all work. Now, women are down more than 5 million jobs compared to before the pandemic, and have lost three decades of labor force participation gains in just one year. These losses for women are losses for all of us, to the tune of an estimated $64.5 billion in forgone wages and economic activity.
Invest in Infrastructure to Restore Losses in Equity…
Getting women back to work requires that we build the care economy that has been needed all along. We must build out a robust paid caregiving workforce—child care, as well as long-term services and supports—while ensuring that when women, or other caregivers, take time to care for their families, they do not suffer grave income or permanent job loss. In addition to the President’s proposal to upgrade childcare facilities and build new supply in high-need areas, we also need investments to finally put America on a path to universal childcare and early learning, in addition to providing national paid family and medical leave and paid sick days for all workers. Members of Congress are connecting these dots, announcing plans to push for child care and paid leave.
These investments are both job creating and job sustaining—two for the price of one. The return would be substantial: The Times Up Foundation estimates that a $775 billion care economy investment over ten years would create 22.5 million new jobs and translate into $220 billion in new economic activity annually. And that does not even include the support for the increased employment of parents and other family caregivers.
…and to Ensure Equity Gains into the Future
Investing in the care economy is especially critical to ensuring that the entire infrastructure package leads to equitable growth. The planned physical infrastructure funding directed toward green jobs and broadband improvements are jobs that have been historically and predominantly filled by men. In fact, nearly nine in 10 solar panel installers and broadband technicians are men, while nine in 10 home health aides, the other fastest growing sector in our economy, are women and disproportionately women of color.
We need to open up these good-paying climate and tech jobs of the future to women by being more intentional about improving their access to education and apprenticeships, facilitating culture shifts within industries, and meeting their care needs through better work-family policies.
If we do not build out our care infrastructure and open up physical infrastructure jobs to women, we will exclude half of our workforce from the opportunities that will shape our economic future, potentially exacerbating and permanently extending the “she-cession” of 2020. To truly “build back better,” we must acknowledge that the road to recovery is paved by care.
header photo: An LED display calling on Congress to invest in Care jobs sits in front of Union Station in Washington, DC. Source: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for National Domestic Workers Alliance & Service Employees International Union