This Mother’s Day, recognize care work as the work that powers our economy

Mother’s Day is, at its core, about care. When we select Hallmark cards and order flower deliveries, we’re honoring the care provided by moms and other maternal figures. This Mother’s Day, though, marks more than a year into a pandemic that threw the disparities in our care system into stark relief. Women left the workforce in staggering numbers to attend to COVID-related caregiving responsibilities at home. This was disruptive for individual families and the economy at large.

So this year, while of course we should celebrate our mothers, there’s much more to be done. Honoring our caregivers goes beyond individual gestures; it calls for a sweeping investment in care workers and services.

Care isn’t a burden for women and families to shoulder alone. It’s the foundation of our economy, and it deserves to be treated as such. For the tens of millions of workers with care responsibilities related to, for example, young children or elderly parents, having stable, high-quality care services available is what makes it possible for them to hold a job. Put simply, care services are needed for the functioning of our modern labor market.

Workers with care responsibilities need a strong care system in place in order to participate in the workforce. As it stands, our care infrastructure is fragmented and inadequate, which cuts off opportunities for millions of workers. The burdens of our inadequate care infrastructure disproportionately fall on women, who still perform the bulk of care work in this country. Those care burdens are a primary cause of low labor force participation among prime age women in the U.S. relative to our peer countries around the world, even before the pandemic. Poor care infrastructure comes at great economic costs.

While workers with caregiving needs rely heavily on care services, care jobs are historically underpaid and undervalued. And because of things like occupational segregation, discrimination, and other labor market disparities related to structural racism and sexism, women and people of color are concentrated in these jobs.

More than 90% of care jobs are held by women and over half are held by women of color. Further, care workers typically only earn around $16,000 a year, are often without the choice to join a union, and are far more likely to live in poverty or near-poverty than other workers. Investing in home- and community-based care services, and making sure care jobs are good, union jobs that pay a living wage, is an important way to create more racial and gender equity in the economy.

The need for care jobs is growing rapidly and inevitably. Almost one in five net new jobs created over the next decade are projected to be either home health aides or personal care aides. That means that even without investments to make them good jobs, care jobs will exist in immense numbers. The people in these jobs will be almost all women, and they will be majority women of color. Without investments to make them good, union jobs, a huge share of the people in these jobs will earn poverty or near-poverty wages—exacerbating race, gender, and income inequality.

Investing in our care system isn’t only about race and gender parity. A down payment on care workers and infrastructure also serves as a jobs creator during periods of weakness in the labor market. And because home care jobs require relatively little in the way of equipment and materials, investments in home- and community-based care generate on the order of twice as many jobs as investments in physical infrastructure like roads and bridges.

The finding that investments in care infrastructure generate roughly twice as many jobs as investments in physical infrastructure takes into account not just “direct” jobs created but also “indirect” jobs created in supplier industries, related service sectors and in “respending” jobs. In other words, when we create good care jobs with decent wages for a majority women of color workforce, we create not only those jobs but also the opportunity for more jobs as care workers put their paychecks back into the community.

We are beginning to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis that made it impossible to take care work for granted. We have a crucial opportunity right now to make investments in our care infrastructure—long-run investments in the quality of care of our loved ones and opportunities for workers at all income levels to be able to work because they have stable, high-quality care for the people in their lives who need it.

While we celebrate all the mothers and caregivers this year, let’s take the opportunity to think bigger, too. It’s time for bold, structural solutions to recognize that care work is real work that powers our economy. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the lives of care workers and families across the country.