Hala S. Ayala, a Democrat, represents Prince William County in the Virginia House of Delegates. She is her party’s nominee for lieutenant governor.

Here’s what I know: Care is essential infrastructure, and it’s past time for us to start acting like it.

I recently had the privilege of joining Woodbridge home-care worker Rena Bumbray Graves and her sister and niece, to whom she provides compassionate, daily care. I saw and felt how critical Bumbray Graves’s work is to her family. Not only does Bumbray Graves help bathe, dress and feed her sister every day, but they also have educational sessions devoted to teaching her niece new words and expanding her ability to read and write.

Bumbray Graves told me that even when things get hard, she stays the course because providing care at home is more than a job for her; it’s a calling. Caregivers allow older adults and adults with disabilities to live independently at home. They’re the difference between the life you want to live and the life you’re forced to live.

Care is what makes all other work possible. As a single mother of two, I know that parents can’t go to work if their kids or aging parents don’t have the care they need. Just like we need roads and bridges, we rely on a strong care system to keep our economy running.

Our country is aging. Roughly 10,000 people are turning 65 every day across the nation, and in Virginia, our over-65 population is set to increase 41 percent in the decade between 2018 and 2028.

Virginia is home to more than 48,000 home-care workers, and the need for skilled workers is only growing. Our home-care workforce is 82 percent female and more than 60 percent people of color.

But here in the commonwealth, these workers make a mean hourly wage of just $10.69, or $23,600 a year⁠ — a far cry from a living wage. And they don’t have access to collective bargaining to come together and fight for basic things such as higher pay, worker protections, benefits and respect at work.

Our essential workers have suffered some of the greatest economic and health impacts throughout this pandemic. But these inequities started long before the coronavirus. Care work has long been subject to structural racism and sexism. The low wages and lack of benefits that care workers receive are no accident; they’re the result of policy decisions made over the course of decades to hold back a workforce made up of workers of color and the people they care for.

It’s time to turn the tides of history and start investing in the people who need care and those who provide it. As a nation, we’ve failed to support the women⁠ — and, more pointedly, the women of color⁠ — who do this work. By taking care workers for granted, we’ve also failed to create a true care infrastructure to support the people who rely on services at home and in their communities. All Virginians who depend on care to go about their daily lives should be able to access the same high-quality, compassionate care Bumbray Graves provides for her sister and niece.

That’s why Congress needs to move swiftly to pass President Biden’s budget, which includes a long-overdue $400 billion investment in expanding access to care and funding good-paying, union home-care jobs with career growth opportunities. In addition to making a huge difference in people’s lives by making it easier for families to receive long-term care and support services in their own homes, it would also create 19,000 good, union, living-wage jobs right here in Virginia.

But building a true care infrastructure isn’t all up to Congress; we can take action right here in Virginia to support our family, friends and neighbors who need care and empower the workers who show up for them across the commonwealth. We can do that by making sure they have a seat at the table through a union to bargain for a brighter future.

The best policies prioritize people and address issues that touch all of our lives.

Everyone has a personal care story about their loved ones, or maybe even themselves. I know I do. We must build a care infrastructure to support the caregivers and everyone who depends on them for generations to come.