A lot of workers may feel underpaid and underappreciated, but President Biden and congressional Democrats have singled out child care and eldercare workers for taxpayer-funded raises.
They say these workers, who tend to be minorities and women, make $11 or $12 an hour on average. Those rates, they say, make these workers underpaid.
Legislation vying for inclusion in Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion package of social welfare spending would use taxpayer dollars to increase pay to $15 an hour for workers who care for children, the elderly and the disabled.
Democrats envision the $3.5 trillion bill they are assembling as a way to tackle economic and racial inequities, and the child care and eldercare pay issue checks off both boxes. They say this provision has a good chance of being added to the massive spending package they plan to push through Congress in a party-line vote.
Using taxpayer dollars to give raises to private-sector employees, however, would dramatically shift how the government tries to help low-wage workers.
The government traditionally attempts to help all low-income workers, regardless of what they do for a living. The earned income tax credit lowers tax bills and potentially inflates refunds for low- and moderate-income workers.
Rachel Greszler, a research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether Congress should be picking just one group of workers to help. “The goal is to subsidize certain sectors, and you have the politicians deciding what sectors they value the most,” she said.
The plan faces firm opposition from Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, blasted the entire $3.5 trillion plan as a “reckless taxing and spending spree” full of “terrible policies Democrats are hoping to hide behind the jaw-dropping dollar figure.”
Still, the goal of higher wages is understandably popular among workers who would reap the benefit.
Erica Payne, who earns $12 an hour to care for a quadriplegic woman in Pittsburgh, said her job is crucial yet undervalued.
“There’s a lot of smaller things people don’t think about unless you’re in that situation,” she said. Her job includes administering medication and using a lift to transfer her patient into bed. “If her head is itchy and she needs it scratched, she has to wait until I get there.”
She said her job should be more valued than fast-food work.
“Aren’t people not worth more than a hamburger?” Ms. Payne said.
To help child care workers, Mr. Biden proposed sending more federal money to states. The subsidies would help ensure that lower- and middle-income parents don’t have to spend more than 7% of their earnings on child care. The proposal would require states to direct the money to child care workers.
Bills sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia, the top Democrats on the Senate and House labor committees, would require a “living wage” for child care workers. Mr. Biden’s proposal defined a living wage as $15 per hour, over one-third more than the workers’ average pay now.
In a separate proposal, the Biden administration would increase funding to states for workers who provide care at home for the elderly and disabled. The states would be required to make home health care available to more people and send an unspecified amount of federal money to home care agencies to increase workers’ pay.
Most home health care workers are women and minorities, key constituents of Democrats.
About 40% of child care workers are either Black or Hispanic women, even though they represent only 8% of the population, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“The work of caregiving predominantly falls on women and particularly on women of color. Nationwide, 63% of home care workers are people of color and 87% are women,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said of the home health care proposal. He is a lead sponsor of the bill and has co-sponsored the legislation that would give raises to child care workers.
He noted that PHI, a think tank and advocacy group for senior care, estimated that 18% of home health care workers earn less than the national poverty level of $21,960 for a family of three.
Beyond raising the workers’ pay, Democrats say, the effort would help brace for the “senior tsunami.”
PHI has estimated that the number of Americans 65 and older will nearly double by 2060 from 49.2 million to 94.7 million. The number of those 85 and older will triple from 6.4 million to 19 million.
The group said it doubts that the number of home health care workers will meet demand if the wages are low. Citing Medicare data, PHI noted that seniors are increasingly choosing to get care at home rather than going to nursing homes.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats will be able to enact the $3.5 trillion package of health care, climate change and anti-poverty programs.
Senate Democrats and Republicans struck a deal Wednesday on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, with 17 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats to advance the legislation past the 60-vote threshold needed to survive.
Republicans won’t back the $3.5 trillion package, which includes tax hikes. Democrats plan to use a procedure known as budget reconciliation, which allows some spending and tax bills to avoid the 60-vote requirement to avert a filibuster and pass with a simple 51-vote majority.
Success depends on all 50 Democrats remaining united and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tiebreaking vote in the evenly divided Senate.