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  • If we want to improve the well-being of more Americans, we have to consider more than GDP and traditional jobs. We could start by valuing the contributions of caregivers.  Tweet This
  • Rep. Gwen Moore has proposed to expand the EITC to include unpaid family caregivers, which not only includes stay-at-home parents, but also those caring for a disabled loved one and a loved one over age 65. Tweet This

Across the political spectrum, there is a growing interest in recognizing the value of caregiving. To seize the opportunity to support families, both the Right and the Left have to move beyond orthodoxy they long shared. 

There was once strong logic behind the orthodoxy that made people on both the Left and the Right prioritize economic growth. If you believed that society didn’t produce enough stuff to provide a good life for everyone, you would focus on making more things. People on the Left would argue for distributing a greater share of what was produced to the workers. People on the Right would argue for keeping government out of the way of businesses producing more. Both sides broadly agreed that growing the economy was the measure of their success. 

But “success” created a host of its own problems and failed to achieve much of what mattered most to people. Today, the United States has a larger economy than ever before. Unemployment rates are near historic lows. America produces more than enough to meet the needs of everyone. Yet, millions of Americans fail to meet their basic needs, and millions more have a worsening or stagnant quality of life. If we want to improve the well-being of more Americans, we have to consider more than GDP and traditional jobs. We could start by valuing the contributions of caregivers. 

A concern for caregivers, particularly stay-at-home mothers, has inspired incisive criticism of economic orthodoxy from conservatives. Helen Andrews, the former managing editor of the Washington Examiner noted that “in this fixation on economic growth, even when it means nudging into the workforce women who would have preferred to stay home, all sides of the political spectrum are in agreement.” Andrews aligns with Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, who argued: “something is wrong with ‘growth’ that imposes a de facto need for two incomes.”

At the root of these conservative criticisms is the failure to properly value caregiving as a contribution to society. Andrews remarked on the absurdity of “paying someone $11 an hour to raise a woman’s children so she can go out and earn $11 an hour, if that woman would be happier staying home and raising her children herself.” 

Of course, this absurdity arises because there is a lack of policy support for caregiving. A would-be stay-at-home parent has few supports available to them because most of government policy is focused on getting that person into the workforce. A growing number of progressives express opinions complementary to the observations of conservatives like Andrews, Cass, and others. Last year, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) demanded recognition for “the overlooked and often thankless work of caregiving.” And in upcoming legislation called the “Worker Relief and Credit Reform Act,” Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI) has proposed to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to include unpaid family caregivers, which would not only include stay-at-home parents, but also those caring for a loved one with disabilities, as well as those caring for a loved one over age 65. Additionally, her bill would increase the maximum credit under the EITC for single filers to $4,000 and $8,000 for married filers. 

Progressives have their own reasons for supporting a redefinition of work, reaching people who fail to qualify for current programs. As the People’s Policy Project’s Matt Bruenig’s analysis shows, caregivers represent a substantial portion of Americans living in poverty. 

The amount of people who could benefit from a recognition of caregiving as work is significant. As the Institute for Family Studies’ own Wendy Wang and Robert VerBruggen found: “35% of mothers whose husbands make less than $25,000 a year are stay-at-home moms.” There is evidence to suggest that more people would be caregivers if they could. Senior Policy Advisor to Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, Patrick Brown noted Gallup’s findings that “56 percent of women with a child younger than 18 said they would ideally like to stay home and care for their house and family.” Many progressives would agree with Brown when he lamented that “the convenient, if reductive, barometer of material success cues us to value domestic production less than work in the labor force.” 

Giving $8,000 to a married couple with a stay-at-home parent cannot fully capture the worth of that parent’s time with their child. Neither will one piece of legislation reorient our institutional bias favoring more “productive” work in the labor force. But these ideas could serve as a beginning for a much more relevant and impactful direction for economic policy in the decades to come. 

With conservatives asking for a reevaluation of policy to respect caregiving, and with progressives proposing an investment in caregivers, there is a tremendous opportunity for consensus and action. For the strength of American families and for overall the well-being of the American people, we should recognize and support the contributions of caregivers. 

Evan Preston is the Senior Director of New Economy Campaigns at the United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S.PIRG). 

Editor's Note:  The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.