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Valerie Young's picture

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I suspect that one reason the U.S. has made so little progress towards pro-caregiver policies is that women figure once the children grow up and go to school, the work/family conundrum will sort itself out. We may have a few rough years of living on just one income, or being uncomfortably stretched by the high cost of child care, but sooner or later we won’t have to worry about competing demands for our time and attention. When you could really have used a paid parental leave policy, when your children are babies, you’re too busy caring for them to agitate for it. When some small slice of your life is returned to you again and they’re older, you figure it’s not really your problem anymore, as the urgency has passed. But trust me, you are soooo not out of the woods on this one.

While the children are getting older, so are our parents. Americans are certainly living longer, but they are not necessarily living stronger. As the baby boomers age, they will need more help with the basic functions of daily living, like bathing, dressing, shopping for groceries and taking  medications. You may live near enough that you become the caregiver to one or both of your parents. With people moving all over, family members are often states and even time zones apart. In that case, you might be overseeing your parent’s well-being long distance, relying on paid home health aides or an elder care manager. One way or another, it’s very likely that you will again be a family caregiver even after your own children are well beyond the pre-school stage.

It’s also possible that a chronic condition or disability may surface, perhaps your own or your spouse’s, or another beloved family member’s. You’re putting children through college, or working and trying to save for your own retirement. Another caregiving chapter opens, and again you have to keep food on the table, pay the bills, and respond to the immediate, recurring needs of someone you love. Do you have to cut back on work to manage? Take time off to meet with doctors? Give it up all together because you have to provide full time care? Or line up a slate of paid care givers, because if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance too? And what if you are the one who gets sick? Who will take care of you, 25 or 35 years from now?

We are staring a national care crisis in the face. As women entered the paid workforce, fewer and fewer were in a position to fill the traditional direct care role. Most women, even with young children, work outside the home to sustain their households. At the same time, the ranks of our older population are swelling, increasing the need for family care, but no one is home to provide it. We rely more and more on home health aides, most of whom are beyond the reach of employment regulations, making near minimum wages, without benefits like health insurance, overtime pay, or time off to manage their own routine doctor visits. These may be the very people who determine our loved one’s quality of life, yet their own is compromised by inadequate worker protections.

Quite simply, in spite of these significant social changes, public policy has remained unaltered. Social security rewards paid work only.  The time you take to “take care of your own,” saving literally billions of dollars in public spending, will make you much poorer in retirement.  Holding on to paid work while being a family caregiver requires a lot of luck. Work hours have gotten longer over the years, and whether you have paid sick days or paid parental leave can change from employer to employer, as there is no national standard. For many women, quitting is the only “maternity leave” available, followed by re-entry into the work force if they can find affordable, adequate child care later. Part- time work is notoriously underpaid and also outside the zone of federal protection.  Looking after any family dependent will likely put you at odds with the way work works in the U.S. today.

The work/family divide is not going to go away. You are always a potential family care recipient, or family care giver, and you will take up and put down these roles again and again throughout your life. Returning to full employment and a growing economy will not solve these problems. Our best chance of ensuring family security through the ups and downs of life is to plan for it together as a society. Our prolonged failure to respond to our new realities means more frustration, pain, loneliness, anxiety and worry for us all.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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