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Striking an infrastructure deal without investing in child and elder care is a huge mistake

Opinion by Fatima Goss Graves and Sean Garvey

Ever since the 10th grade, 26-year-old Briana Phillips has wanted a job in the trades. Since then, she worked her way through high school, into an apprenticeship and eventually into a career as a union ironworker with Local 44 in Cincinnati. The roadblock on her mind: consistent and reliable care for her three children.

For most of her career, Briana would pay family members to watch her kids, but lining up schedules can be very complicated and inconsistent. She also tried traditional day care, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. Between dropping her kids off at day care and driving to and from her job site, she was late to work every day and unable to work enough overtime hours to offset the day care costs, especially given that day care center had a hard stop, while her job did not.

She tried taking turns staying home with the father of her children, a fellow ironworker, but all that did was make them both miss out on earning pension credits determined by the number of hours worked. It all came to a head in the past two months and Briana joined the millions of women who left the workforce – unable to pursue the family-sustaining career she’s been working so hard for, for nearly a decade.

Stories like Briana’s are familiar to families around the country. And as the White House and Senate negotiators flesh out an infrastructure plan, it’s precisely workers like her who are at risk of being left out of the improvements the plan has promised. A significant investment in care, including affordable access to high-quality child and elder care, would reach every American. But leaving behind that support would stunt the economic growth infrastructure spending could provide.

On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that he had agreed to a compromise deal with Republicans on infrastructure. While many of its details remain unknown, we do know it includes many critical investments for Americans: roads and bridges, public transit, broadband, water and power systems and more. But so far the deal leaves out Biden’s proposal to spend $400 million to bolster caregiving for aging and disabled Americans. Biden’s original infrastructure plan, which contained provisions to build and update energy-efficient child care centers, already fell short on raising the wages and benefits of child care workers. Now, the bipartisan deal seems to have limited funding for child care facilities even more with only a provision that eliminates lead water pipes.

Meanwhile, help for home care workers and working mothers like Briana who need access to affordable child care is expected to be folded into a separate bill, which Democrats will try to pass on their own through reconciliation, which requires a lower threshold of 51 votes (or 50 votes with the vice president breaking the tie). While Biden has said he wants both bills passed in tandem, Senate Republicans who agreed to the bipartisan deal are now threatening to back out in an attempt to stymie the reconciliation bill — leaving the future of both pieces of legislation hanging in the balance.

It is critical to invest in care at the same time as we invest in bridges and broadband. The infrastructure plan outlined by the White House this week is significant and holds a lot of promise for our economy. But without another corresponding bill that addresses the care infrastructure workers like Briana count on to be able to do their jobs, that promise will come up short.

The pandemic has revealed that our reliance on the underpaid and undervalued caregiving work of women, and particularly women of color, places an unsustainable burden on those women, their families and the economy overall. Yet even before the pandemic, working people who most need access to these vital supports were least likely to have it. It’s not enough to go back to where we were.

We can’t expect an equitable recovery without addressing the lack of child care, home- and community-based services and paid leave that pushed millions of women out of the workforce and devastated their families’ financial security. Individuals, corporations, philanthropies and “the market” cannot solve this crisis. We need significant investment, especially at the federal level, to build an economy that works for all of us. Right now, we should be worried about spending too little, not too much.

The path forward to shared prosperity is through public investment in infrastructure in all its forms. Expanding access to child and elder care while keeping costs affordable and paying the workers who provide it equitably will require significant federal investment, dollars which would best be spent by expanding home- and community-based services and adopting key provisions of the American Families Plan, including universal child care and universal paid leave. These must remain a top priority for this White House and this Congress if the full benefits of this infrastructure package are to reach every American.

The Biden-Harris administration and Congress must continue championing bold and meaningful investments in our nation’s care infrastructure. A comprehensive plan to support caregivers is not only one of the best ways to ensure that our communities can prosper, but enjoys strong bipartisan support among the American public. Investing in care infrastructure will create good jobs that will support millions of people in the short and long term, as the pandemic begins to recede and as the population ages and our need for care grows ever more dire. Robust public investments in care will also ensure that our economic recovery will be equitable, including for Black women, immigrants, people with disabilities and others whose labor has been undervalued and dismissed for far too long.

For millions of workers like Briana, this struggle over caregiving is not new. While the pandemic has highlighted the fragility of our country’s care infrastructure, returning to that inequitable and unstable status quo would be a grave disservice to workers, families and the entire economy. We have a rare moment to build a new future for workers and families, and it’s up to Congress and the President to seize it.

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