Sophia Samuel of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, faced the difficult choice that millions of Americans across our Nation are forced to confront. She built a successful career as a professor, earning $80,000 per year. However, her personal success coincided with a decline in her parents’ health. Her mother, Elita, and her father, Albert, were both diagnosed with cancer. They also battled other chronic conditions, including diabetes and heart disease. On their own at home, they struggled. Sophia helped where and when she could, but her parents needed more hands-on care. For Sophia, it was important that her parents were able to receive care at home, lest they be sent to a nursing home where they might be separated. She left her job as a professor and accepted work with a home care agency, which hired her to provide care for her parents. Sophia’s salary went from $80,000 to $22,000 per year. She went from preparing syllabi to managing all aspects of her parents’ care. Sophia is not alone though.
Every year, thousands of Americans make the difficult decision to leave the workforce and serve as caregivers. Many more Americans work in the caregiving economy where the wages they receive are outrageously low. And in the last year, nearly 3 million women have been forced to leave the workforce due to the pandemic. For too long, our government viewed caregiving situations as a largely private, family matter, yet the challenges of caregiving are part of the basic infrastructure of our society. With millions of people serving as caregivers nearly 1.3 million in Michigan and 1.6 million in Pennsylvania we can’t afford to be complacent.
The work of caregiving, which predominantly falls on women and particularly on women of color, has been neglected in the same way that our roads and bridges have been left to deteriorate over decades. As we emerge from the pandemic, Congress has an opportunity to build a bridge to create good-paying jobs for millions of Americans by investing in home and community-based services. That is why we have introduced the Better Care Better Jobs Act legislation that would make a historic investment in home and community-based services by strengthening and expanding access to quality home care services and lifting up the caregiving workforce that provides them.
Sophia oversees all aspects of her parents’ care, managing medications, helping them get ready in the morning, taking them to and from doctor’s appointments, cooking, cleaning and grocery shopping. Sophia’s work is what allows Elita and Albert to remain in their family home. By investing in these services and the workers who provide them, Congress can help more Americans receive health care in the setting of their choice and raise wages for caregivers.
In their American Jobs Plan, President Biden and Vice President Harris included $400 billion in funding for home and community-based services because they recognize that infrastructure is more than the route we take to work—it’s about how our society functions. Investing in home and community-based services will also address problems that came into stark focus during the pandemic. More than 183,000 residents and workers in nursing homes and other long-term care settings lost their lives to COVID-19, representing roughly one-third of deaths across the country. We can’t go back, but we can look forward and rebuild our health care infrastructure in a way that allows families to receive care in the setting of their choice.
The pandemic has brought new problems to the forefront, but it has also forced us to confront old ones. There’s no older problem in our Nation than the lack of fairness and opportunity given to Black and Brown Americans, among other communities of color. It’s shocking, but not surprising then, that an industry dominated by Black and Brown women pays a median wage of $12 an hour. Many older adults receiving home and community-based services often rely on a rotating cast of home caregivers. Our society asks these workers to ensure the health and well-being of seniors and individuals with disabilities, yet we pay them poverty level wages. Low pay and difficult conditions create turnover and worker shortages, which inevitably impacts care. We owe a fair wage to those who do this backbreaking work, and we owe consistency in care to those receiving it.
All of us, whether in our own family or that of a neighbor’s, have known someone who needs help at home none of us are immune from this challenge. We are all one diagnosis away from needing help, like Elita and Albert, or of needing to provide care, like Sophia does. This common challenge to our basic infrastructure is one Congress can and should address as part of the American Jobs Plan.
Senator Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, serves on the Finance Committee, the HELP Committee, and the Select Committee on Intelligence. He is also Chair of the Special Committee on Aging. Legislation he sponsored that has become law includes major portions of the Keep Kids in School Act, the Emergency Medical Services for Children Reauthorization Act, and the Health Insurance for Former Foster Youth Act.
• Congresswoman Debbie Dingell represents Michigan’s 12th District in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she has made it a priority to be a voice for the Midwest on issues that matter most to working families. A member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Debbie is focused on forging bipartisan solutions that support Michigan’s families and economy, including improving long-term care and ushering in the future of the American auto industry.