A lot of workers may feel underpaid and under-appreciated but it’s childcare and eldercare workers that President Biden and his Democrats singled out for taxpayer-funded raises.
They stress that these workers, who tend to be minorities and women, make on average $11 or $12 an hour — rates that they describe as underpaid.
Legislation vying for inclusion in Mr. Biden’s $3.5 trillion package of social welfare spending would use taxpayer dollars to boost pay to $15 an hour for workers who care for children, the elderly, and the disabled.
Democrats envision the $3.5 trillion bill they are assembling as a way to tackle economic and racial inequities in the U.S., and the childcare and eldercare pay issue check off both boxes. That’s why they say it has a good chance of being added to the massive spending package they plan to push through Congress in a party-line vote.
The idea of using taxpayer dollars to give private-sector workers a raise, however, would be a dramatic shift in how the government tries to help low-wage workers.
Traditionally, the government attempts to help all low-income workers regardless of what they do for a living, using such programs as the Earned Income Tax Credit that lowers the tax bill and potentially inflates the refund for low- and moderate-income workers.
Rachel Greszler, a research fellow in economics, budget and entitlements at the conservative Heritage Foundation, questioned whether Congress should be picking just one group of workers to help and thereby deciding what sectors are valued the most.
“The goal is to subsidize certain sectors, and you have the politicians deciding what sectors they value the most,” she said.
The spending faces firm opposition from Republicans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, blasted the entire $3.5 trillion plan as a “reckless taxing and spending spree” full of “terrible policies Democrats are hoping to hide behind the jaw-dropping dollar figure.”
Still, the goal of higher wages is understandably popular with the workers who reap the benefit.
Erica Payne, who makes $12 an hour for taking care of a quadriplegic woman in Pittsburgh, said her job is crucial and yet undervalued.
“There’s a lot of smaller things people don’t think about unless you’re in that situation,” she said of her job, which includes administering medication and using a lift to transfer her patient into bed. “If her head is itchy and she needs it scratched, she has to wait until I get there.”
She said her job should be more valued than a fast-food worker.
“Aren’t people not worth more than a hamburger?” Ms. Payne said.
To help childcare workers, President Biden proposed that the federal government send additional money to the states. The money would be used to subsidize the cost of childcare so that lower- and middle-income parents will not have to spend more than 7% of their income on childcare. In addition, the proposals would require states to use the money to subsidize the pay of childcare workers.
Bills sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia, the top Democrats on the Senate and House labor committees, would require that childcare workers be paid a “living wage.” Mr. Biden’s proposal defined that as $15 per hour, more than a third more than the workers’ average pay now.
In a separate proposal, the Biden administration would also increase funding to states for workers who care for the elderly and disabled in the patients’ homes. The states would be required to use the money to make home healthcare available to more people. The states would also be required to send some of the federal dollars to home care agencies to boost the pay of the workers, although it does not set a certain amount.
Most home healthcare workers are women and minorities, key constituencies of Democrats.
About 40% of childcare workers are either Black or Hispanic women, despite making up only 8% of the population, according to the National Women’s Law Center.
“The work of caregiving predominantly falls on women and particularly on women of color. Nationwide, 63% of home care workers are people of color and 87% are women,” ]Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, said of the home health care proposal. He is a lead sponsor of the bill and co-sponsored the bill giving a raise to childcare workers.
He noted that PHI, a think tank and advocacy group for senior care, estimated that 18% of home health care workers make less than the national poverty level of $21,960 for a family of three.
Beyond wanting to raise the workers’ pay, Democrats say the effort will help brace for the coming “senior tsunami.”
PHI estimated that the number of adults in the U.S. who are aged 65 and over will nearly double by 2060 from 49.2 million to 94.7 million. The number of those aged 85 and over will triple from 6.4 million to 19 million.
The group argues that it’s doubtful enough people will want to become home health care workers to meet the demand if they are still being paid low wages. Citing Medicare data, PHI noted that seniors are increasingly choosing to get care at their own homes rather than going to a nursing home.
It remains to be seen whether Democrats will be able to pass the $3.5 trillion package of health care, climate change and anti-poverty programs.
Senate Democrats and Republicans struck a deal Wednesday on a $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal, with 17 Republicans joining all 50 Democrats to advance the legislation past the 60-vote threshold needed to survive.
Republicans won’t back the $3.5 trillion package, which includes tax hikes. Democrats plan to pass it with a procedure known as budget reconciliation, which allows some spending and tax bills to avoid the 60-vote requirement and pass with a simple 51-vote majority.
Success depends on all 50 Democrats remaining united and Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote in the evenly divided chamber.