Someone has to care for your children, your parents, and someday, you. Absent this person, who steps in? A relative, maybe, if they’ve got the time. Otherwise you’re on your own, left to sort out the burden of care with whatever resources you possess. Should those resources be plentiful, you’ll be fine. If they aren’t, you’re in trouble. You’ll have to leave work to care for your children. Your parents will depend entirely on you. And as you age, no one will be there to nurse you.
That fate is already reality for thousands of Americans who lack the means to afford child care or nursing care in their homes. President Biden’s new $3 trillion infrastructure plan takes some steps toward relief. It allocates new public funding to care work and child-care facilities. The plan is far from perfect: Some argue it doesn’t do enough to raise wages for child-care workers. But it contains a suggestion that is radical by American standards: Care work is infrastructure, as necessary as a road or a bridge.
Republicans disagree. On CNBC, Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia said she wants a different kind of infrastructure plan, something that doesn’t fund “home-health aides and school buildings and all of these kinds of things.” Her colleague, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, tweeted that the Biden plan “is about anything but infrastructure.”
The Washington Post reports that a group of Republican senators, including Capito, are working on their own bill, which would “narrow their focus” to “traditional” infrastructure, without the corporate tax increase Biden had proposed to pay for it. Ignore, for a moment, Capito’s assertion that school construction is somehow not infrastructure: Care work, too, is infrastructure, as many left-wing economists, organizers, and advocates have argued for years. Republicans seem to believe that physical infrastructure simply appears, as if a giant hand descends from the sky and builds a road by itself. Construction isn’t sorcery — people have to build things, and those people need other people to care for their children, teach them, and look after relatives while they’re building that road. There is no giant hand. There are no robots, either. Workers are human beings, with human requirements. Society cannot function without care work or the laborers who perform it. A collective good, care work is a collective responsibility too. The only question remaining is the law. Will it pay for care work, or not?
On infrastructure, conservative logic is wrong in a practical sense. But it’s not enough to pick apart their reasoning, to hold it up to the light, and point out all the holes it contains. Arguments betray motivations, sympathies, priorities. There is a moral subtext to the Republican definition of infrastructure, and it is worrisome. Not only would the party abandon care workers to the whims of the free market, they’d abandon families and workers who depend on care work to remain in the labor force too. That barebones vision of a world without care work is the same vision the GOP has for America. They’d never admit it. The market works fine; the private sector is superior; Americans can sort out their problems without government help.
A close examination of the care-work sector, however, reveals that the market isn’t working particularly well at all. As of May 2020, the median wage for a home-health aide was $13.02 an hour. Many caregivers work informally; they are caring for their relatives. One in six caregivers live in poverty, as Fortune recently reported. Their circumstances say nothing about the importance of their work. The elderly require care and so do people with certain disabilities. Care workers are necessary, but they are simply undervalued and underpaid. This is an old problem, which rests on top of other old problems; it’s not a coincidence that care workers in the U.S. are mostly women, and women of color at that. The Biden bill only does so much for them: It calls for higher wages, but unless moderate Democrats change their minds about the filibuster, a $15 minimum wage will remain a rallying cry instead of reality. Republicans, however, seem determined to do nothing. The party has no plan to protect care work at all.
And that’s the point. The GOP doesn’t have a plan because it doesn’t think care work matters. They don’t value the people who perform it. When members of the party rail against the elites, and fashion themselves champions of the worker, they aren’t talking about low-income Black women who take care of the elderly. They aren’t even referring to the archetypal white man in a hard hat. That man has a family, and that family has needs. They’re thinking of themselves, and their own families, because they have the means to pay for care. Most Americans aren’t so fortunate. The GOP’s barebones America would leave millions behind, and that’s the way they like it.