The United States steals $450 billion a year from elder caregivers

Earlier this month, AARP launched a new ad campaign meant to address the situation of elder caregiving in the United States. The campaign is based on thousands of accounts, and on longstanding research, such as the report that AARP released last year, “Valuing the Invaluable: The Growing Contributions and Costs of Family Caregiving, 2011 Update.”

Much of that report is, sadly, unsurprising. Caregivers are largely unpaid, largely family members, generally overworked and overtaxed, isolated, at a loss, often confused emotionally as the stress mounts. As a consequence of all of this, and more, caregivers generally suffer declining and deteriorating health. The majority of these careworkers are women.

Here’s the news, and it’s staggering: “The estimated economic value of their unpaid contributions was approximately $450 billion in 2009, up from an estimated $375 billion in 2007.” As AARP poignantly notes, that’s not only a 21 percent increase in a mere two years. $450 billion is also “more than the total 2009 sales of Wal-Mart, America’s largest company, and more than the combined sales that year of the three largest publicly held auto companies (Toyota, Ford, Daimler).”

The stories told by individual caregivers are important, as are their lives. They are crucial, and we must listen to them and, even more, learn to act on what they’re saying and what we’re hearing. At the same time, those stories beg to be contextualized. In one year, the national economy stole $450 billion from US residents. Whether that labor was a labor of love or a labor of obligation, the value of that labor was stolen. And, as the years 2007 – 2009 demonstrate, it’s a growing market with a growing profit margin.

Caring Across Generations is one answer, an important and even crucial answer, to the problem. Of equal importance is re-creating a State that doesn’t regard its citizens and residents as clients and customers. In this year of high political rhetoric, one hears a great deal about the United States being `a wealthy nation.’ Wealth built on the predatory extraction of $45 billion dollars in a single year is not wealth. It’s poverty. Ask the women who care for their elders; ask the elders who are majority women as well. Ask yourself.

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Seven billion. Who cares?

According to the United Nations, the world population reached 7 billion today. Ok, maybe it’s really tomorrow or the next day, maybe it was yesterday. The exact date is somewhat beside the point. The point is 7 billion. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Danica May Camacho, born today in the Philippines. Maybe the child is a girl-child named Nargis Kumar, born in India. The exact child is also somewhat beside the point, although the choice of gender for symbols is telling.

Seven billion is a big number, difficult to visualize. Of course, two centuries ago, when the population was a `mere’ 1 billion, that also was a big number, difficult to visualize. In 1930, when the population reached 2 billion, in 1960 when it reached 3 billion, in 1975 when it reached 4 billion, in 1987 when it reached 5 billion, in 1999 when it reached 6 billion, each time the number was a big number, difficult to visualize. That means in less than 40 years, the world population had doubled. Clearly, `we’ are not very good at numbers.

Some will tell you this is largely a story of India and China. Others will note that, of the continents, Africa has the fastest population growth. Of course, the whole of Africa has fewer people than either China or India, but it’s growing. Others will talk about inequality and resources. Geographic inequalities between people born, raised, living in different parts of the world. Inequalities between and among generations, between and among genders as well.

These are important issues to discuss. So is this. Who cares and who will care for the billions? Already, we know that the world population is growing older … quickly. Every state in the United States, has prepared a program to “Ride the Age Wave,” mostly by coining groaningly clever phrases and quandaries, such as “The Age Wave:  Silver Tsunami or Golden Wave of Opportunity?

Who will care for the growing global population of elders, the growing scattered populations of children, the growing population? Care workers. Child care providers. Elder care providers. Nannies. Maids. Housekeepers. Family members, more often than not unpaid. Women. Women of color. Women from “somewhere else.” And girls. Women and girls. Women and girls who are too often described as silent. Women and girls who are too often described as invisible. They aren’t silent, and they aren’t invisible. We’re simply not listening or seeing.

Care work is systematically dropped out of development programs and public policy debates. Care workers are systematically excluded from any consideration or consultation concerning … care. The ILO Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers is a step towards correcting that situation. So are campaigns like the Caring Across Generations Campaign, launched by the National Domestic Workers Alliance and their allies, in the United States.

Another step would be global conversation. Try it. The next time someone says or writes, “The world population is …”, answer with a question. “Who cares?” And then, together, answer the question.


(Infographic Credit: NPR / UN Population Division)