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What Does Hillary Clinton’s Caregiver Proposal Really Accomplish for Domestic Workers?

Clinton’s plan would benefit people who care for their elder family members, but would do little for paid domestic workers.

Hillary Clinton is establishing the caring economy as a priority area, and that is good. But to actually make an investment in the caring economy, the next president must adopt a transformative, feminist economic policy. (Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

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Just before Thanksgiving, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton announced her new plan to invest in the caring economy – most prominently benefiting people who care for elders in their own family. While there are poignant aspects to the plan, the proposal is anemic at best relative to the actual needs of the caring economy.

The caring economy includes professional nannies, housekeepers, caregivers for elders and caregivers for people living with disabilities, in addition to people who devote unpaid hours to caring for loved ones. But Clinton’s proposal provides no specific policies aimed at paid domestic workers.

Clinton’s plan to invest in the caring economy includes several provisions. First and most prominent is a caregivers’ tax credit. Individuals who care for the elderly in their own family, including parents or grandparents who do not live with them, would receive a tax credit to offset the costs of caregiving. It is unclear from Clinton’s memo how big the tax credit would be, but the Los Angeles Times reports that eligible families would save up to 20 percent in expenses of $6,000 for one elder in their care – resulting in a tax savings of up to $1,200.

The plan also includes a care workers’ initiative: Clinton would build a government-wide initiative that would address the challenges of care workers, as well as strengthen and professionalize the caregiving sector. There are no specifics around this provision at this time.

In addition, Clinton’s plan would expand Social Security. Like an existing proposal from Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), Clinton’s plan would enable caregivers to earn credit toward their Social Security even when they take time off from paid work to focus on the work of caregiving.

Finally, the proposal includes a caregiver respite program expansion. Clinton would increase funding for Respite Care Access, a program to help caregivers cope with the emotional toll of caregiving.

What’s good about Clinton’s proposal? First, the tax credit actually expands an existing credit that only applies to those who live with the elder family member needing care. Clinton’s credit is broader, as it applies to caregivers who do not live with the relatives for whom they provide care. According to economist Heidi Hartmann, this is not an insignificant shift.

“This is a new benefit in terms of increasing eligibility,” said Hartmann, who is president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “More and more elders are living independent of their family members. So this is a significant expansion of who can benefit from the tax credit.”

A case in point of a caregiver who would benefit from Clinton’s plan is Zoe Tersche, 23, who cares for her grandfather, Max, in southern Brooklyn, New York. Max is 99. Tersche lives in her own apartment in Astoria, Queens.

“My grandfather gets diagnosed with new medical ailments all the time. Costs come out of nowhere,” Tersche told Truthout. “Some months it’s just groceries that we have to pay for, but we face bigger costs on a regular basis.”

Tersche’s mother, Susan, is a nurse living in Florida. Susan pays for these costs out of pocket, as do many in the United States who care for elders in their own family.

“I think a tax credit could be tremendously helpful to at least reimburse us for costs for things my grandfather needs,” Tersche said.

The best aspect of Clinton’s plan is that it seizes on Rep. Nita Lowey’s proposal to enable caregivers to earn credits toward Social Security benefits while they take time off from paid work for caregiving responsibilities. Currently, the only way to accrue credits toward Social Security benefits is by showing evidence of income. But since caring for an elder in your own family has historically not been deemed productive labor, it is not considered worthy of income by itself.

Women disproportionately provide care to elders in their own family, and women are more likely to leave the workforce to take on these caregiving responsibilities. As a result of the way Social Security is currently structured, women receive an estimated average of $300 less in their monthly Social Security checks than men do.

Clinton’s proposal helps counter the longstanding assumption that caregiving is not work worthy of economic value.

This new Social Security policy undercuts the false separation of work and family that has been central to the US economy. The belief that caregiving is not “work” continues to be central to the so-called right-to-work philosophy that aims to disempower labor unions and collective bargaining efforts generally. This was apparent recently in the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in Harris v. Quinn, which weakened the collective bargaining rights of in-home care workers. Essential to the ruling was the Supreme Court agreeing with the right-to-work movement’s argument that the “home is not a union workplace.” The Clinton proposal helps counter the longstanding assumption that caregiving is not work worthy of economic value.

Indeed, Clinton is ostensibly the first mainstream presidential candidate to directly discuss the economic value of domestic work – the work of nannies, caregivers and housekeepers that has historically been cut out of the “productive” sphere. By contrast, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio’s paid leave tax credit is couched more in pro-family and anti-abortion language. Talking about the actual economic value of domestic work helps belie the historic devaluation of domestic work as being “women’s work” that does not merit pay. It is a starting point for valuing caregiving work.

As important as these steps are, a true investment in the caring economy needs to be much bigger. (Clinton’s own policy memo states that the full economic value of unpaid caregiving is $470 billion per year, yet her plan costs just $1 billion per year over 10 years.)

An investment in the caring economy requires transformative, feminist economic policy. Wages and working conditions need to improve for the millions of professional domestic workers in the United States. Caring Across Generations, the preeminent national advocacy group seeking stronger work-life conditions for elders and their caregivers, puts living wages and benefits at the top of the needs identified for caregivers.

Yet Clinton’s current plan does not address wages for professional care workers. Moreover, her tax credit only helps those who care for their aging grandparents or parents. Elder care is very important given the growing number of baby boomers who now need care, but limiting this policy to only people caring for elders in their own family is far too narrow.

“What about those who care for children?” Hartmann said. “I’m waiting to hear what Clinton has in mind.” (Hartmann points out that Clinton did recently propose a plan to fund child care for parents who are college students.)

Sarita Gupta, co-director of Caring Across Generations, believes the tax credit is a “terrific first step” but like Hartmann, Gupta also wants to see stronger policies that will protect professional domestic workers. “We’d really like to see the credit extended to all family caregivers, including those taking care of their family members with disabilities or who are chronically ill,” Gupta told Truthout.

A real investment in the caring economy needs to be much more aggressive. Three days after the Clinton caregiver plan was announced, the progressive Economic Policy Institute tweeted a “Women’s Agenda,” which includes robust policies that could benefit professional domestic workers, such as a higher federal minimum wage, eradication of the tipped minimum wage (many tipped workers are poor parents), improved collective bargaining rights and progressive paid leave policies that ensure workers can realistically take extended time off from their jobs to care for children or family without significant loss of income. Washington, DC,’s paid leave policy, for example, seeks 16 weeks of paid time off.

Gupta also wants to see a deeper commitment to this range of feminist economic policy. “Our hope is that our leaders develop a strategy that includes a commitment to make policy and programmatic improvements, invest financially in the careforce, and involve the voice of working people and labor advocacy groups in every step of any initiative,” she told Truthout.

A more holistic investment in the “careforce” requires helping both families who care for their own loved ones and domestic workers who are professional care workers. And for professional care workers, working conditions and wages are critical.

“As a direct care worker and as a single parent, a better wage [would] help me stabilize my daily living and decrease my stress, so I can support my kids and provide even better care for my clients,” said Timothy K. Doe, a professional domestic worker in Arizona and a member of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “As a caregiver, I do my work with my heart. I provide transport for my clients, I cook, I clean, I provide physically therapy, I provide counseling and I listen to them. Everyone deserves better pay for the important work that we do as care workers, and all workers deserve to have good work conditions.”

Clinton is establishing the caring economy as a priority area, and that is good. But to actually make an investment in the caring economy, the next president – whoever that may be – will need the courage to tangle with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, Republicans and probably some Democrats. Is there room in the White House for an aggressive, feminist, economic policy agenda?

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