Age-related issues, including family caregiving, must become integral to the domestic policy agenda. Until now, they have received lip service. But here’s our opening to push for real conversation: The Obama Administration has declared a domestic policy focus on improving the lives of working families. At a June White House Summit on Working Families, cosponsored by the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, I was struck by an array of political, media, and business superstars—and their failure to focus on the fact that workers age and become and need family caregivers. In a workforce teeming with family caregivers, one thing is for sure: The work is unpaid, but it has real costs.
For now, programs that help family caregivers are few, often limited in time and scope. At the federal level, the Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave; but in a world in which caregiving may require years, not weeks, that is simply not enough. Working families cannot afford a week, much less 3 months, with no income. Time away from work means lost Social Security contributions; lost retirement; and, for some, a loss of skills. Aging workers are themselves challenged by illness, disability, and ageism in the workplace.
Those of us aiming to build a better future for elders (and ourselves) must push for a conversation that includes family caregivers. Whenever we can, we need to remind our opinion leaders and policymakers that family caregivers are working families. Policies that help pregnant and new moms and dads are fantastic, but so are policies that help families support loved ones who are old or frail or have disabilities.
The well-documented yet unsolved problem is creating public policies that support family caregivers—not just in name, and not just with lip service, but with real, meaningful financial, social, and physical help for the challenges that we all may face eventually. Throughout the day at the White House Summit, people talked about what working families need, but as if those needs ended with paid maternity leave, high-quality daycare, or an onsite lactation room.
The fact of the matter is that we will spend more years as caregivers to adults than we spend parenting children from birth to age 18, and those years will have a profound effect on our income and our economic security.
Private industry leading the way for working families?
At the White House Summit, several business leaders described what their organizations have been doing to improve life for their workers and, by extension, their families. Several had exceeded the minimum wage, offering what is known as a living wage, which, even at $15/hour, is far from what a family of four needs to thrive. Employers like Seattle-based Moz have implemented “no-meeting Fridays” and flexible commuting and worksite policies that encourage telecommuting and flex schedules.
Executives from companies large and small shared their strategies for helping employees balance work life and family life. A restaurant owner from Washington State described the consequences of providing paid sick leave to her staff of 52; the cost was offset by an increase in business from a community that admires her commitment. Mark Weinberger, CEO and Global Chair of EY (formerly Ernst & Young), noted his efforts to lead by example—to demonstrate for his employees that family obligations and opportunities should always come first—flying home from his own first-ever keynote address in China, he said, to get to a family event.
When government and business work to develop effective policies for families, Weinberger cautioned, employers should remember that “women don’t want to be singled out and men don’t want to be left out.”
Breakout issue, not in breakout rooms
Yet caregivers are regularly left out of policy discussions. Even at a major event focused on working families, family caregiver issues were mostly in the breakout rooms. Important as it was to have Ai-jen Poo of Caring Across Generations and Gail Hunt of the National Alliance for Caregiving on the agenda, neither was featured in the plenary, with its standing-room-only, high-profile program.
The voices of older adults must be center stage, not just in the breakout rooms or as afterthoughts, but as central to what helps working families.
Congressional leadership for working families
Some recent actions on Capitol Hill offer hope. The challenge for proposed policies and programs is to generate will and awareness, despite the possibility of an increased payroll tax. Examples follow:
- Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have introduced the FAMILY Act, about which DeLauro has written, “The FAMILY Act would create an independent trust fund within the Social Security Administration to collect fees and provide benefits. This trust would be funded by employee and employer contributions of 0.2% of wages each, creating a self-sufficient program that would not add to the federal budget. The expected cost to the average worker would be similar to the expense of one tall latte a week.” When needed, benefits would be paid out to cover about 66% of a worker’s wages for some period of time.
- Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-NY) and colleagues in the House have introduced the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act of 2014, which would allow family caregivers to continue to accrue credits necessary to earn Social Security benefits, even when they leave the workforce temporarily to care for another. Supporters can find out how to lend their voice via a website from the Center for Community Change.
- U.S. Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA) has announced his plans to introduce legislation to create a national Caregiver Corps, an idea first launched as a grassroots movement to address workforce shortages, build intergenerational support, and promote opportunities for adults of all ages interested in community volunteerism.
Progress is not inevitable
While all these great ideas would make useful laws, we need to do more to advocate and be sure that our issues and aspirations are not lost in the ongoing debates over domestic policy. At the White House Summit, Labor Secretary Tom Perez spoke movingly of what it means not just to “put food on the table but to have time to eat at the table.” He also noted, “Progress does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.”
Progress occurs because we make it occur. If we simply wait to react to the “age wave,” we will be swamped.
When it comes to an aging America, denying the numbers and science cannot change the future: If cancer does not kill us in our 60s and heart disease spares us in our 70s, dementia and frailty will come for us in our 80s and 90s. It is not just death and taxes that are inevitable: Aging, after all, is the only path to a long life.