Unfortunately, plenty of media coverage has run with this narrow, frivolous framing. Which raises a question: Can Democrats shift the conversation to a point where majorities accept as broad a framing of these matters as possible?
This doesn’t mean majorities must agree that “spending on the caregiving economy” is the precise equivalent of “spending on infrastructure.” Instead, what’s needed is a recognition that public spending on everything from care work to research and development can underpin general prosperity and human well being, just as conventional spending on “infrastructure” does.
Two progressive organizations — Invest in America, a coalition working to build support for large public investments, and Data for Progress, a polling firm — are trying to shift the conversation in this direction. Their research has persuaded them this argument can be won — if it’s prosecuted a certain way.
Biden’s plan envisions large new federal expenditures on home and community services for the elderly and disabled. A future component of the plan is expected to include investments in child care, preschool and paid leave. These things are increasingly being referred to as “caregiving infrastructure,” an idea Republicans are ridiculing.
Sean McElwee, the executive director of Data for Progress, says one way to win the argument is with the concept of “health care jobs.” This could shift the debate on to favorable terrain — health care, which helped Democrats capture the House in 2018 — in time for the 2022 midterms.
“You’re basically setting up a situation like 2018, where Democrats wanted to give you health care, and Republicans wanted to strip it away,” McElwee told me.
McElwee said the particulars of Biden’s plan could play well in 2022 precisely because they are focused on funding health care for the elderly.
“Older voters are most likely to be engaged and mobilized in a midterm environment,” McElwee said.
Referring to “health care jobs,” McElwee suggested, casts the concept of a care economy or a caregiving infrastructure as a blueprint for creating jobs while making more health care available to more people.
“I don’t think it’s bad for us to be talking about this as part of an infrastructure bill,” McElwee told me. “It’s the strongest grounds for us to be talking about it.”
A new Data for Progress poll, taken for Invest in America, finds that large majorities support federal investments in health care for seniors and the disabled when the question frames them as part of “caregiving” or “care” as a component of the economy.
You should be cautious with partisan polls, but that’s borne out by a new Morning Consult poll, which found that 76 percent of voters favor spending $400 billion on “improving caregiving for aging and disabled individuals.”
Crucially, that was higher than the (still widespread) support from other things conventionally thought of as infrastructure, like replacing water pipes. So perhaps the distinction around “real” infrastructure is lost on many voters.
McElwee also suggested this debate could pay long term dividends for Democrats. The millennial generation, he noted, is growing older, meaning they are both becoming increasingly likely to vote and settling down in situations where they’re caring for aging parents.
“Home health care and eldercare — that’s a millennial issue,” McElwee told me, adding that branding Democrats as the party that wants to invest in these things could pay off just when millennials start voting “at much higher rates.”
In the end, shifting this discussion might turn on something fairly simple. As Jonathan Cohn writes in a must-read, the basic idea behind public investments in the caregiving economy is that they make life better, more livable, and even more efficient, just as spending on “real” infrastructure does.
Investment in services for the elderly can allow families the flexibility of not putting older loved ones into institutional settings while also not overburdening younger family members who need to devote energy to work.
Meanwhile, Cohn adds, investment in early-childhood education carries “economic benefits,” because it’s “literally an investment in making individual human beings more productive,” something that also applies to the disabled.
And investment in day care can accomplish this for women, while combating the toll the pandemic has taken on their economic prospects in the form of cutbacks to working hours and even total withdrawals from the workforce.
Even in the face of terrifyingly potent talking points about “real” infrastructure, those seem like winnable arguments.