As ambitious as the New Deal: Biden's plan for caregivers, educators

Charles Bruner: Joe Biden’s plan to improve the caregiving and education workforce is “every bit as ambitious as the New Deal at the time of the depression or the New Frontier/War on Poverty/Great Society efforts of the 1960s.” -promoted by Laura Belin

It may or may not receive the media attention or the public dialogue it deserves during the campaign, but presidential candidate Joe Biden’s “Plan for Mobilizing American Talent and Heart to Create a 21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce” represents the type of bold vision that has the potential to reshape and fundamentally improve our society.

It opens with a recognition of the critical role caregivers and helpers play in our society:

The pandemic has laid bare just how hard it is for people in this country to find access to quality caregiving they need for themselves, or to juggle the responsibilities of working and also caring for family members. […]

Even before the pandemic, our country was experiencing a caregiving crisis. […]

Often, families made caregiving decisions that came with great financial, professional, physical and emotional costs. Caregivers and early childhood educators – disproportionately women of color – have been underpaid, unseen, and undervalued for far too long.

Biden believes that if we truly want to reward work in this country, we have to ease the financial burden of care that families are carrying, and we have to elevate the compensation, benefits, training and education opportunities for certification, and dignity of caregiving workers and educators. Biden’s economic recovery plan won’t just build back our economy to the way it was before, but build it back better – including by building a robust 21st century caregiving and education workforce.

It goes on to enumerate an agenda that would dramatically increase the public investment in this workforce, including the compensation and recognition these workers deserve.

Overall, Biden proposes a new federal investment — $775 billion over the next decade – to make this a reality, including uplifting the current workforce in its compensation and career advancement opportunities and creating 1.5 million additional jobs in the caring fields.

This plan is every bit as ambitious as the New Deal at the time of the depression or the New Frontier/War on Poverty/Great Society efforts of the 1960s. It has the potential to strengthen our economy, to enrich our community experiences, and even to bring us more together.

Fred Rogers said, “When I was a young boy and saw scary things in the news, my mother would always say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. There are always helpers.’”

In this current pandemic, those helpers have been nurses and community health workers who continue to check-in on those homebound and with existing health needs and conditions. It is home visitors who quickly pivot to doing virtual visits to parents with infants and toddlers and delivering “porch packs” with extra diapers and activity sheets and making sure that everything is all right.

It is special education teachers who call the children and families and continue to provide instruction and guidance in meeting special needs.

It is pediatric offices that provide drive-through vaccinations, provide segregated and sanitized waiting rooms, do additional outreach and call-ins to families, and conduct virtual well-child visits to provide additional guidance and help.

It is child care workers who may have been laid off, but still call the families to see how the children are doing.

These are now, as they should be, recognized heroes and sheroes in our country’s efforts to retain some normalcy and connection in a time of disruption. Many are putting themselves in harm’s way, and most are working above and beyond their expected job descriptions. We also know that this workforce is short-staffed and stretched to even provide triage to many of the children, families, and seniors made most vulnerable by COVID-19. It is true that “there are always helpers,” but that does not mean that we support them to be sure than can provide all the essential help that is needed.

Because many of these caregivers and helpers serve those who are most vulnerable and infirm, they require public financing and investment. Some is through the health system and Medicare and Medicaid; some is through the area of human services dealing with economically struggling families needing child care, battling disabling mental or physical conditions, or dealing with isolation and denigration. Some of this is through the child welfare or juvenile justice systems dealing with systemic youth and some of this is through home visiting and family support and education that seeks to be proactive and preventive.

To a much too great degree, public financing has cut corners and short-changed the investment in these workers. Not only is the compensation low, which leads to high turnover and financial stress on the worker and worker’s family, the caseloads are high and the support (in terms of supervision, training, and frontline resources to do their work) insufficient to do more than triage for a fraction of those who could benefit. This is particularly true in poor and disinvested communities, often very disproportionately of color and segregated from both economic and social opportunities.

The benefits of investments in these caregivers accrue to the individuals they serve, but they also should be recognized as doing much more.

In an economy where manufacturing jobs are declining and artificial intelligence is making others obsolete, this workforce – because it relies on personal contact and relationship development – is one place where work and productivity can grow. There are many for whom this is an attractive and preferred calling and one where their talents can best be realized. Rather than looking upon such caregivers as a grudgingly necessary expenditure of public funds and at the lowest level of the job hierarchy, we really need to look at this as an investment in our economic vitality and prosperity.

In a country where the historic (as well as current) racism has blocked opportunities and blocked dreams for too many people, this investment also provides opportunities for community-building and diverse new leadership and careers. It alone will not deal with inequities and divisions that exist in American society, but it will contribute to rectifying them.

Most importantly, it will help realize the American dream of providing opportunity, giving help where it is needed, and valuing one another. It will elevate and expand a workforce and caring community not only in providing needed help but also as a social force about the best of who we are.

This caregiving workforce – when taking into account home health care workers, aides and residential workers in nursing homes and hospitals, community health outreach workers, child care workers, youth counselors and nurses and social workers, and many others, including public educators (which Biden deals with in a separate but equivalently ambitious plan) – constitutes 16 percent or more of the electorate. Politicians need to listen to, value, and develop platforms for this part of the electorate every bit as much (or more) than they do for those (often the wealthiest most looking out for their own self-interest) who currently too often are the source for policy. It also would create more civil public dialogue and bridge and could even reduce some of the polarization that has occurred in American politics.

Although this may not be presented as a radical or even progressive agenda, I believe it is radical in the sense that it really goes to the roots (radis) of American values and our predicament in society today. For those who see the need for fundamental change and not going back to the old normal, this is a key component of a strategy to do so.

Biden has done his part simply by placing these issues on his agenda. It is now our task to ensure that there is public recognition and support so that his plan can become a reality.

Charles Bruner is a longtime Iowa advocate for policies that support children and strengthen families.

You can read the whole plan here:

Top image: Joe Biden speaks in Des Moines on May 3, 2019. Photo by Michael F. Hiatt, available via Shutterstock.

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