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Opinion: Investing in caregiving may boost pandemic recovery

Providing care for a loved one can be meaningful and rewarding, but it can also be challenging. As many as 20% of Americans provide regular care for family members. Many of these caregivers provide care to family and work outside the home, scraping by using piecemeal networks of family and professional caregivers.

Even in the best of times, millions of Americans must balance their responsibilities at work with their caregiving needs at home. But in the midst of a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis, many Americans are far from the best of times. 

My research on family caregivers age 55 and older during the coronavirus pandemic shows just how fragile caregiving arrangements are. It also highlights how much-needed public investment would improve the quality of life of caregivers and their families — all while strengthening the U.S. economy in the aftermath of the COVID-induced recession. 

In the early days of the pandemic, half of all family caregivers we surveyed experienced disruptions to their caregiving. Women and people of color were disproportionately represented among those who took on more caregiving responsibilities, mirroring the overall effects of the pandemic. When these arrangements break down, family members must take on new caregiving roles that can make it difficult to maintain work and family responsibilities.

But caregiving arrangements were precarious even before the pandemic. Turnover among direct care professionals was high due to low wages and poor job conditions, including high rates of workplace injury. To address this issue, we need significant and sustained investments in the caregiving sector so professional care providers, who make other work possible for so many Americans, can afford to stay in their jobs. 

Yet even when paid care providers have more job stability, disruptions to care routines are inevitable. Health needs change, and care needs change with them. In these moments, family members may need weeks or even months away from work to arrange for their loved one’s new needs. 

That is where paid leave comes in. People often think of paid leave policies as only having to do with parents of new children, but in six states and the District of Columbia, workers whose family members face serious medical conditions are also able to take paid time off to care for their loved ones.

It’s well past time to extend this program nationally. No worker should be forced to choose between the health and well-being of a family member and their ability to pay their bills.

Some say that we can’t afford investments in our caregiving workforce and paid leave programs. They are overlooking that these are precisely the programs that will carry us out of this crisis and prepare the United States for the future.

The labor force participation of women, who disproportionately provide care, cratered during the pandemic. This harms the entire economy. Women drive economic growth, and their earnings have been the main source of increasing household income since the 1970s. 

To get women back to work, we need a system that provides stable care arrangements. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell recently named investment in caregivers as a driver of economic prosperity. What’s more, these are investments that can pay for themselves. According to one report, if we invest $77.5 billion per year in the direct care workforce, we could generate 22.5 million jobs over 10 years — translating to $220 billion in new economic activity. 

It just makes sense.

At the state level, Michigan has led the way on investing in our care workforce and in our families. Now, it’s time for our congressional delegation to lead the country by pushing for federal investments in paid leave, universal long-term services and supports, and increased compensation and improved job quality for professional caregivers.

Yulya Truskinovsky is an assistant professor of economics at Wayne State University.