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OPINION

A blueprint to fix the nation’s failing care sector

We must rebuild a stronger, more resilient, and inclusive economy that puts all Americans on the path to success.

The hard-working hands of Gloria Caballero, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son who lost her job at the Milk Street Cafe in Boston at the start of the pandemic.
The hard-working hands of Gloria Caballero, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter and 17-year-old son who lost her job at the Milk Street Cafe in Boston at the start of the pandemic.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

When I was first elected to Congress, in 2013, my children were 17, 13, and 11. My mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and my father was living with the effects of a debilitating stroke.

My parents lived next door, and I would split my time between my house and theirs, making meals, doing laundry, giving hugs, and picking up prescriptions. I would drop the kids off at their sports practices between district events, frequently bringing my parents along. They were exhausting days, loading and unloading my father’s wheelchair into my car while watching my mother to make sure she didn’t wander off, and planning meals and appointments for all of us.

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When Congress was in session, I would return at the end of the week from Washington, D.C., not sure where I was needed more: help my husband with the pressures of our busy family or care for my aging parents. Often, I ended the week in tears, sitting in my car in the driveway between our two houses feeling like I was failing everyone.

My life, like that of so many other women, was a constant push and pull as I tried to provide love and assistance to the family members who relied on me while balancing work responsibilities.

And I am fortunate — I have a supportive partner, a job where I could take a day off if I needed to, health insurance, and the ability to hire help.

Too many American families face a similar balancing act with far fewer resources. Millions of Americans struggle to find and afford quality child care, which in many states costs the equivalent of a month’s rent or mortgage. Senior care often eats up a family’s entire savings, and only 40 percent of private-sector workers have access to paid family and medical leave.

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We’ve built a society without the infrastructure to truly support working families, limiting our economy’s potential and stretching families to their financial and emotional limits. Women have paid the price for our country’s refusal to define affordable quality care as critical to our success. The coronavirus pandemic put a spotlight on this crisis.

Over 2.5 million women have been pushed out of the workforce — 1 million of them are mothers — because of the care crisis created by COVID.

Women — especially women of color — also make up an overwhelming majority of our paid care workforce, from early educators to home care aides. On average, these women who keep our families and businesses running make minimum wage and receive few benefits, often preventing them from providing for their own families. During the pandemic, care workers were forced to choose between going to work, and risking their own safety, or leaving their families without food.

Now that the end of this pandemic is in sight, we must recognize the low-paid and unpaid labor that has built America. We must acknowledge that care is infrastructure.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan and Families Plan are our blueprint. The president’s package would invest $25 billion in child care facilities, $425 billion in child care and universal pre-K, and $400 billion into the care economy overall. This funding will help significantly reduce costs for child care providers and families, expand Medicaid coverage of home and community-based services for people with disabilities and older adults, improve wages and working conditions for care workers, and better prepare our youngest learners for a lifetime of success. From the child care proposals alone, the average family would save almost $15,000 a year.

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I think back on those years when I struggled to get by and how families are now facing even bigger obstacles under the pandemic. Caregivers often feel like I did, that they are failing their family, but it is our infrastructure that is failing them. We can no longer hold back and blame women for a system that wasn’t working even before COVID.

This investment will help all of us — kids, families, businesses, and the entire economy. We can’t continue with a system that leaves so many Americans behind and leaves so much opportunity on the table. We must rebuild a stronger, more resilient, and inclusive economy that puts all Americans on the path to success. And we can start by recognizing and investing in care as fundamental to America’s economic success.

US Representative Katherine Clark represents the Fifth District of Massachusetts. She serves as the assistant speaker of the House.