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Black Women Saved American Democracy: Investing in Care Infrastructure is One Way to Thank Them

Caregiving work has historically been undervalued. Today, Black women are disproportionately employed in caregiving work and facing the worst of the COVID-19 economic crisis.

Black women delivered for American democracy as a whole.

Black women delivered for President-Elect Joe Biden. Not only did they vote for the Democratic ticket at a rate exceeding any other demographic group, but Black women—from leaders like Stacey Abrams, Nse Ufot, and LaTosha Brown to the many others who organized tirelessly—played a critical role in enabling voters to cast ballots in the first place, by registering voters, mobilizing their communities, and fighting against voter suppression. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may be the most direct beneficiaries, but in a larger sense, Black women delivered for American democracy as a whole.

Black women have recovered only 34 percent of jobs lost since the pandemic hit[.]

Now, America must deliver for Black women, who are facing the worst of the COVID-19 economic crisis. Black women have recovered only 34 percent of jobs lost since the pandemic hit, compared to 61 percent for white women. Black mothers confront some of the greatest obstacles to economic stability: In addition to the ever-present barriers of systemic racism and sexism in the labor market, the pandemic is dramatically worsening the shortage of childcare. As a result of enduring sexism, mothers in two-parent heterosexual households are more likely than fathers to stop working or cut back hours in order to care for children in the pandemic and to oversee the bulk of children’s online learning, with Black and Latinx mothers experiencing the greatest drop in employment.

The reality that Black women today are disproportionately employed in caregiving and other service jobs—and that these jobs remain low-paying and offer few benefits—is rooted in this same discriminatory history.

The paid and unpaid caregiving work that Black mothers perform has been drastically undervalued going back to the slavery economy that demanded enslaved women provide childcare for slave masters even as their own families were torn apart. In the early 20th century, domestic work was one of few employment options open to Black women, and policymakers excluded caregivers from many job protections and benefits guaranteed to other workers. The reality that Black women today are disproportionately employed in caregiving and other service jobs—and that these jobs remain low-paying and offer few benefits—is rooted in this same discriminatory history.

[C]are is part of the nation’s essential infrastructure, work that must be performed to make all other economic activity possible.

Ending the chronic devaluation and underfunding of caregiving would be a step toward rectifying this history. This starts with a recognition that care is part of the nation’s essential infrastructure, work that must be performed to make all other economic activity possible. COVID-19 has underscored the reality that parents cannot work without childcare and the care provided by schools, just as people cannot access jobs without roads or rails to travel on. Investments in care infrastructure—including universal childcare, paid leave, and universal long-term care services and supports as well as investment in turning care jobs into well-paying, stable positions with advancement opportunities—should be the centerpiece of economic recovery efforts. This approach would support Black mothers and family caregivers pushed out of the workforce for lack of childcare during the pandemic as well as Black women working as paid caregivers for children, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

Investment in care infrastructure would also super-charge the nation’s economic recovery overall. Writing for Caring Across Generations, Josephine Kalipeni and Julie Kashen explain:

Investing in a robust care infrastructure will have swift and immediate economic impacts because it creates jobs quickly, spurs job growth in other sectors, and ensures financial stability for individuals, families, and communities. A fully financed care infrastructure—from child care and early education to care for aging adults and people with disabilities—is not only critical to a racially just and equitable economic recovery but is also key to building a pathway forward that is sustainable for all families.”

For too long, America has demanded that Black women disproportionately take on the cost of care.

A substantial investment in care infrastructure will not come cheaply, yet Kalipeni and Kashen point out that the cost of doing nothing—of continuing to push the cost of care (and lack of care) onto struggling households and to underpaid caregivers themselves—is far greater than the price of investing in adequate care. For too long, America has demanded that Black women disproportionately take on the cost of care. Acknowledging that care is part of the nation’s public infrastructure and funding it as such is one powerful way for the Biden administration to recognize Black women’s contribution and build a more just future.

Considering Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as vice president, feminist scholar Brittney Cooper points out that “representation is not everything. But it is absolutely something… Her presence begins rather than ends a conversation about what America owes Black women.” Recognition, respect, and compensation for the caregiving work Black women have long performed continues the conversation.