By the year 2030, 20% of the U.S. population will be age 65 or older. This isn’t new news—the Census Bureau has been pointing that out for the past 25 years. By 2050, the population of Americans age 65 and older will be nearly double what it was in 2012. Right now, the growth of the working-age population is well behind the growth of the 65-and-older group, and the population aged under 14 is really shrinking.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has cut as much as two years out of life expectancy in the U.S., it could be a blip, and life expectancy could return to previous levels; by 2030, women are expected to live to over age 83 and men to 80. What all this means is that very soon the U.S. is going to have a very large population of people who are going to require, on the whole, a lot of care.
The Republican answer to the aging baby boom generation for the past quarter of a century has been austerity—cut Social Security and Medicare to “save” them, and cut loose that aging population to live sicker and poorer. Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have a different answer: recognize that care-giving is part of the nation’s infrastructure, and fund it.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan will invest $400 billion in caregivers. That’s in addition to $621 billion for transportation including roads, bridges, ports, airports, public transit, and electric vehicle charging stations; $111 billion for replacing lead water pipes and replacing old sewer lines; $100 billion for national broadband internet; $100 billion for upgrades to the electric grid to deliver clean energy; and $300 billion toward building and retrofitting homes.
The care-giving part of the bill, of course, is the part that Republicans (and of course the Kool Kidz of Politico’s “Playbook”) call out as “not even close to infrastructure.” It couldn’t be because that’s the part that most directly addresses gender and racial inequity, could it? Yeah. That. Women have been hid hardest economically by this pandemic and have borne the brunt of the care-giving during it. They were the ones disproportionately forced out of jobs in order to care for family members, including homeschooling their kids.
Likewise, it’s women—and particularly women of color—who comprise the bulk of the care economy. Heather McCulloch, founder and executive director of Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap and Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations write about the care economy as infrastructure investment, pointing out that infrastructure investment as an anti-recessionary strategy is meant to create jobs and address public needs. An investment in supporting human capital—by creating a well-paid caregiving force—does both. It helps create a professional and skilled caregiving workforce with living wages and the support that they need to do the most necessary work. They, in turn, allow the rest of the workforce—especially women—to return to their jobs, earning income and participating in the economy.
That’s what infrastructure is supposed to be about. Leave it to Sen. Elizabeth Warren to spell out what is happening here. “The vast majority of direct care workers — a group that includes personal care aides, home health aides and nursing assistants who work in private homes, nursing homes and other settings — are women (86%) and people of color (59%),” she wrote in an op-ed for CNN. “The under-valuing of caregiving work is directly linked to racism and sexism, so it’s not surprising that caregiving is consistently—and wrongly—devalued as ‘unskilled’ and ‘women’s work.'”
Biden, in his plan, recognizes that the care economy—like the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, and water systems—has been neglected for too long. He’s also making a bet that the American public agrees. So far, that’s working. Check out the numbers from the latest Politico/Morning Consult poll: Every part of this proposal from Biden gets majority support even from Republicans. That includes 64% of Republicans supporting the caregiving proposal.
“This is a real opportunity to redefine what our economic profile is going to be like—with an aspect of the building part and the caring part—and really could be definitional for our party for the next 50 years,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and adviser to Biden’s 2020 campaign, told Politico. The start Biden made with the American Rescue Plan to rebuild faith in government and see it as a solution “is here to stay for a while, and I think at least through 2022,” Lake said. “But the other question for progressives and Democrats is how we solidify this as a permanent view of what the role of government is rather than just [intervening] during a crisis.”
One swing-state Democrat, Rep. Susan Wild of Pennsylvania, concurs. She’s been focusing particularly on care issues. “Ever since Reagan, the concept of ‘let’s shrink government” has been a fairly popular one among some people,” she said. “And yet, the truth of the matter is that what we discovered with a global health emergency is that you actually do need government for some things, and that a lot can be accomplished—not just on the health side of it, but also the recovery piece of it.” She believes that the pandemic has “enlarged people’s way of thinking about government and what the proper role of government should be.”
That leaves Republicans, again, in the dust. You’ve got Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calling it a “radical-left socialist agenda” (that gets majority support from Republican voters) and Republican surrogates like former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie going on national television saying “Now the ‘care economy’ is infrastructure […] The care economy. I don’t even know what the hell the care economy is.”
The White House remains prepared to take them on, knowing that they’ll just keep getting more voters—particularly suburban women—on their side. “If they want to pick a fight about whether these things that are foundational to families’ ability to put food on the table and do their jobs are infrastructure or not, that is a fight we welcome,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director.