Op-ed: The American Rescue Plan Act and Rhode Island’s Care Economy: Fair Wages for Hard Work

By Alan Krinsky and Linda Katz - Printed in The Providence Journal on December 28, 2021

Using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help pay fair wages for Rhode Island’s care economy workers is a sensible and justifiable use of these funds — and will advance racial, ethnic, and gender equity as well.

These workers – including people who provide early learning for our children, support people with disabilities so they can live a full life, and help our oldest adults live safely at home or in congregate care settings — have been essential workers, both during the pandemic and long before. Yet, as a society we have failed to pay these workers wages that reflect the critical work they perform.

Most direct care workers cannot live adequately, let alone thrive, on the wages they receive — often minimum wage or not much above. We ought to pay more respectable wages, recognizing the hard work and commitment of care workers, and the central and expanding place of this workforce in the overall economy.

Some will argue that we should not use ARPA funds for new programs or spending because in doing so we create future obligations without any steady funding source. This argument doesn’t hold water. Rhode Island is on a path to require a $15 minimum wage on January 1, 2025, so the state will need to pay care workers that amount in three years. For the next three years the state can use ARPA funds and additional federal funds that will be available for child care and home and community-based services once the Build Back Better Act is passed. But the state also must plan to have sufficient general revenue to ensure that care workers are paid the required minimum wage and reasonable increases for years to come. In truth, the state is now paying the piper for the failure to provide reasonable cost of living increases over the past decades and in some instances actually cutting state investments in child care and other human service programs.

One of the reasons we have failed to pay these essential workers what they deserve has to do with race, ethnicity, and gender. Earlier this year, President Biden proposed to address the nation’s physical infrastructure and human infrastructure in a single funding bill. For political reasons, the bill was split in two, and while the physical infrastructure part has already been passed by Congress and signed into law, the human infrastructure part in the Build Back Better Act has yet to be finalized and enacted. As the writer Heather McGhee has noted, these two pieces “split along a pretty striking racial and gender line.” The construction and other physical infrastructure jobs traditionally associated with white men received broad, bipartisan Congressional support. By contrast, there has been narrower support and less urgency for strengthening the nation’s human infrastructure, including the care economy, which disproportionately employs women, as well as people of color, both women and men.

A long history, going back to the New Deal, underlies this differential treatment of workers. People of color and women of all races and ethnicities were simply left out of parts of the New Deal, such as the early minimum wage laws, which excluded agricultural, household, and hospitality jobs — disproportionately not held by white men. Therefore, when we devote additional resources to the care economy and pay better wages, we increase equity and expand economic opportunity and prosperity.

Now is the time to demonstrate our respect for the commitment and dignity of Rhode Island’s care economy workers by paying them higher wages, and at the same time we can address historic sexism and racism and grow the state’s economy.

Alan Krinsky is the Senior Fiscal Policy Analyst and Linda Katz is the Policy Director at the Economic Progress Institute.

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