Opinion

To End the Caregiving Crisis, Reimagine the Care Economy to Support Its Cornerstone: Black Women

Black women have long been the cornerstone of care in America. We raised this nation, caring for others’ children — first under duress, then out of necessity. Now, it’s Black, brown and immigrant women risking their health to provide for their families during the coronavirus pandemic, and disproportionately caring for America’s children and elders.

The Biden-Harris administration committed resolutely to addressing COVID-19 and stabilizing our floundering economy. However, “build back better” doesn’t adequately address the staggering “she-cession” that drove Black and Latina women from the workforce, due significantly to lack of family care support.

Historically, Black women were systemically blocked from opportunities to build wealth and achieve financial security. We must break this cycle.

America’s recovery – and our liberation – hinges on building a robust care system where everyone who needs care can easily and affordably access it, and where all care providers receive the respect and compensation they deserve.

Closing the staggering wealth gap between Black and white families means addressing anti-Blackness in all the ways it manifests in our economy. At home, Black women are often both the breadwinner and caregiver, with most unpaid responsibilities falling to us. As care workers, we hold the sixth fastest-growing job in a rapidly aging nation. This care allows people to continue working and financially supporting their families.

Much of families’ care needs fall disproportionately on Black women’s shoulders — partly because that’s how it’s always been. Starting during chattel slavery, white men and women have used physical violence and discriminatory laws to devalue caregiving and exclude domestic workers from fair wages and labor protections. Today, care jobs remain poverty jobs (median annual earnings are about $25,280 for home health and personal care aides and $24,230 for childcare workers) and lack benefits such as health insurance, retirement plans and childcare. The very people who care for our nation cannot afford high-quality care for their own families.

The financial precarity of the Black middle class is by design. The United States is the only “advanced” industrialized country with no national paid sick or family leave policies.

We know the impossible choices that Black women workers and caregivers face firsthand.

As a Black single mother, I (Younger) worried about providing for my child’s future. In April, I lost my father and a source of income to COVID-19. Close friends and family requested financial support to help make ends meet. Thankfully, I was able to help them because I had a safety net: a place to live at my mother’s home in Harlem, N.Y.. But the money I used to support others could have instead built a foundation of economic security for my four-year-old daughter.

I (Kalipeni) have watched my mother go from being a domestic worker, to home care aide, to nurse, to primary caregiver for my father before his death in April, all while caring for my siblings and me. Living halfway across the country from them I tried my best to provide remote care for my parents (especially my mom, who often neglected her own needs). When I think about supporting her while starting my own family, the math doesn’t add up — there aren’t enough hours in the day.

We need actual care supports so that Black women can stay in the workforce and have financial security. Building on centuries of Black women’s resistance, we have the power to change how our nation values care.

For the first time, “sandwich generation” parents, care workers, disability justice activists and labor leaders have come together to demand a care infrastructure rooted in racial equity. This diverse coalition takes its lead from the Black women and Latinx caregivers calling for robust policies and programs to ensure that every person and their loved ones can get the care they need throughout their lives.

These policies should include:

  • Universal long-term support for aging parents and loved ones with disabilities.
  • Universal childcare.
  • Universal paid leave, including paid family and medical leave and paid sick days.
  • Expanded support for family caregivers and the sandwich generation, including financial compensation, skills training, and respite care.
  • Increased wages and standards for domestic and all care workers.
  • Increased care access through innovation, such as online portals where families and care workers can navigate services and benefits.

COVID-19 has already changed caregiving forever. This is no time to “build back” old systems rooted in white supremacy. We must pursue an intentionally anti-racist recovery, starting by reimagining an economy that works for the millions of Black, brown and immigrant women who sustain it. Our community, and our nation’s well-being, depend on it.

Tiffany Younger is the policy and special projects manager at Closing the Women’s Wealth Gap. Josephine Kalipeni is the senior strategic advisor at Caring Across Generations.

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