Sarah Harder, president of the American Association of University Women, told a conference of women leaders in Iowa in January that women will be voting "kitchen table issues" in the 1988 election. Not women's issues, not bread and butter issues, but kitchen table issues. "They come," said Harder, "from the center of family life."
It's got a nice ring to it. The kitchen table is not where you discuss aid to the contras. It's where people balance their checkbooks, go over youngsters' report cards, sort out child care arrangements, make lists of things to do and talk on the phone with far-flung siblings over how to care for elderly parents -- and who will do it.
Most of the nation's care-giving is not done in child care centers or nursing homes. Most of it is done in private homes, and most of it is done by women who make up an unpaid, and, until recently, largely invisible army of volunteers.
The kitchen table is their command station in an exhausting battle in which those care-givers all too often are responsible for their own children on one end of the spectrum and elderly parents on the other. The kitchen table is also where the elderly man or woman tries to sort out the problems of caring for an incapacitated spouse, an ordeal for both that can go on for years, with death, widowhood and impoverishment the only certainties.
The Older Women's League has been trying for years to focus the nation's attention on the enormous care-giving tasks that have been placed primarily on older women. Last fall, OWL founders Laurie Shields and the late Tish Sommers wrote a book, "Women Take Care, the Consequences of Caregiving in Today's Society," which was based on interviews with 400 women care-givers across the nation. Some government data included in the book give an idea of the dimension of the problem: in 1985, the last year for which data are available, 1.4 million people over the age of 65 lived in nursing homes and 5.2 million other people over that age needed daily help with such things as bathing, eating and dressing.
About 1.6 million people giving that care are women, usually the elderly person's daughter or wife. About 30 percent of them work outside their homes, but one in five cuts back on her hours to provide care and one in 10 quits her job altogether. One in three of those people gives services that are the equivalent of a full-time job. Between 80 and 90 percent of the care given the elderly outside a nursing home is unpaid care given by family members.
That is generally not a temporary situation. According to OWL, the average woman today can expect to spend as many years caring for a dependent parent or spouse as she does in caring for a dependent child.
That may explain why elderly care and child care have become hot political issues in the late 1980s.
Shortly before Super Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal published a story about an 18-month effort by the American Association of Retired Persons and the Villers Foundation to gain commitments from both Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls that they would address the need for long-term care for the sick, frail, injured and handicapped. Medicare, the federal health care for the elderly, covers skilled nursing care but not long-term care. Medicaid, the health program for the poor, covers long-term care only when the person has become impoverished. Elderly couples have thus found their life savings hemorrhaging to pay nursing home costs with the surviving spouse left in poverty. Other couples have divorced after decades of marriage so that the savings of the spouse who does not need long-term care are protected.
The Journal article quotes Joshua Wiener, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as saying he is "flabbergasted at how long-term health care has moved from the 'political backwater' . . . to the forefront of this year's election." The Journal also quoted Floyd Fithian, chief of staff for Sen. Paul Simon, as saying it could well be a "decisive issue in the campaign."
In 1986, there were 6 million more women voters than men, according to the Women's Vote Analysis, which predicts that 10 million more women will vote this November than men. The American Association of Retired Persons has 28 million members and it is heading a coalition of dozens of other organizations in an effort called Long Term Care 88.
One of the founding principles of the Older Women's League is that the personal is the political, and that is precisely what is happening with care-giving. It is one of those kitchen table issues that sooner or later will affect every one of us who is part of a family -- and most of us who vote.