Why Paying Carers a Living Wage Make Economic Sense

A true win-win

Welcome back Chaise Lounge readers and a special shout-out to new subscribers! This week, we will take a look at President Biden’s infrastructure bill and in particular, the provisions to support those who work in the care economy. While some have questioned whether nursing home aides and daycare workers are actually infrastructure, the majority of us understand that if we don’t support these workers, the rest of us cannot work. The pandemic did teach us a few things! But before we dive into that, let’s take a look at other news.

Global News

  • In Venezuela, a thirteen-year-old girl was repeatedly raped by a man in the neighborhood eventually impregnating her. Her mother and teacher were able to provide her with medication for abortion. When her mother went to the police to report the rape, the police were more interested in how the girl got an abortion. Now, the teacher is in jail and the perpetrator had not been charged. This case has gotten enough attention that President Maduro now says that he is open to discussion on abortion issues, a big turnaround for politicians in this heavily Catholic country. We will keep an eye on this story.

  • In Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan is under fire after a television interview in which he was asked about the rise in sexual violence against women. According to the New York Times, he responded by saying, “What is the concept of purdah?” using a term that refers to the practice of seclusion, veiling or concealing dress for women in some South Asian communities. “It is to stop temptation. Not every man has willpower. If you keep on increasing vulgarity, it will have consequences.” He faced immediate backlash and has been trying to backpedal from his comments by claiming they were misconstrued.

National News

  • Former Representative Katie Hill (D-CA) lost her case this week in which she was suing the Daily Mail for publishing revenge porn pictures of her. The judge felt that the pictures were a matter of “public interest” because Ms. Hill was a Congressional representative. Hill plans to appeal the decision as she is concerned that this loss will make women less likely to run for office.

  • The Food and Drug Administration has finally allowed abortion pills to be delivered by mail during the pandemic. This is a huge win for pro-choice advocates. It will be interesting to see what happens once the pandemic is determined to be over because the FDA’s position has always been that it wasn’t safe for women to take the drug at home. Now, there will be even more data proving that it is indeed safe. To learn more about this topic, read my piece from last spring where you can really get into the weeds!

Why Paying Carers a Living Wage Makes Economic Sense

The pandemic uncovered the ugly truth that American society undervalues those in caring professions. And the vast majority of those in caring professions are women, especially women of color.  While this had really not been a secret, there had been no real political will to address the problem. But now that we have seen the dark side of what happens when our carers must put themselves at risk in order to perform their jobs, it is obvious that things cannot continue the way that they were before the pandemic.

Who exactly are we talking about here? We are talking about nurses, nursing assistants, home care aides, daycare workers, after-school program workers, and anyone else who provides direct, face-to-face contact with others in order to support their well-being. These are positions that have historically been paid some of the lowest wages requiring heavy lifting, long hours, and often no benefits. Women hold more than 75% of healthcare jobs, so they are most affected by underpayment.

Now, President Biden has included what he calls the care economy in his infrastructure bill. He is calling for major investment in home-based community services through the expansion of Medicaid. The proposal addresses two issues. First, there are years-long waits for people with disabilities and the elderly to get into group living settings where they can get the care they need. Second, those who work in those settings providing the care are woefully underpaid. The proposal provides funding to dramatically increase home-based community service thus providing jobs. Then the proposal provides funding to bolster wages and allow collective bargaining for the employees. 

Research supports the increase in pay in multiple ways. In one study, researcher Krista Ruffini of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, found that increased pay led to higher quality services being given to patients in nursing homes. She found, “A ten percent increase in the minimum wage would prevent at least 15,000 deaths, lower the number of inspection violations by one to two percent, and reduce the cost of preventable care.” She went onto find that being paid higher wages makes people work harder, reduces the cognitive load of financial stressors, and makes it likely that employees will not be wooed away by a higher paying job, therefore reducing turnover. 

In another study by the Leading Age LTSS Center at UMass Boston, researchers looked at how giving care workers a living wage would improve their lives. A living wage is defined as a wage that a full-time worker needs to pay for their family’s basic housing, food, transportation, and health care needs out of their own earnings, without the need to rely on public assistance. The researchers used publicly available data and then ran simulations to see what difference a living wage could make in several states. According to the report, “Raising wages for direct care workers offers several benefits to individuals, care recipients, and the economy overall: 

• Direct care workers will be financially more secure.

• Employers and care recipients will see less turnover among aides and will ultimately experience increases in the quality of care.

• The additional pay will translate into faster economic growth, more jobs in other sectors, and lower costs for public assistance programs and tax credits.”

Some of the costs of raising the wages are offset by the fact that with the present low wages, many of these workers are depending on food stamps, free lunch programs for their children, and having their health insurance subsidized. So, as taxpayers, we are already paying. Wouldn’t it make a lot more sense to give that money directly to the worker so that they can avoid being on public assistance and have to navigate all those government programs and gain their dignity? Either way, we end up helping to support folks, but supporting folks in getting to a place of financial independence helps to put that money right back into the economy.

How Did We Get Here?

Enough about the economics, let’s look at how we got here, to begin with. In traditional, patriarchal societies, women do the caregiving and men provide for everyone. While caregiving was not “paid” work, historically, women were mostly able to depend on the man to support them. At least that was the model. 

We are decades beyond that traditional patriarchal structure of American society, but somehow we allowed the attitudes to remain. While things are changing for the better each generation, the attitude that caregiving is still primarily “women’s work” and is not valued economically. 

But, the pandemic turned those beliefs on their head. Without care for young children, families found that they could not function. Parents struggle to work with kids at home. We no longer live in that patriarchal structure, and no matter how much some would like to return to it, that world is gone. Now, everyone is working, and we need caregivers who are recognized and valued for the work they do. The fact that the conversation is around providing a living wage shows how bad we have allowed the situation to get. 

We are at a precipice here, and we have important decisions to make as millions get vaccinated. We all know that we can’t return to “normal” because there were so many things that needed attention. The pandemic did one good thing in that it revealed the underbelly of inequities in ways that we can no longer ignore. Paying people who perform caregiving roles in our society a living wage seems like a good place to start.

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