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By Tamieka Atkins
Georgia’s caregivers are tired.
More than a year into the pandemic, many families are juggling work, childcare and family caregiving needs. And as President Biden stated, “For too long, caregivers — who are disproportionately women, and women of color, and immigrants — have been unseen, underpaid, and undervalued.” This is particularly true in Georgia, where Black women overwhelmingly bear the load of caring for families economically, physically and emotionally.
I know this firsthand. When schools shut down last March, my work as executive director of ProGeorgia continued. With the 2020 election on the horizon, ProGeorgia’s voter engagement efforts couldn’t exactly slow down, in fact, we had to mobilize quickly to move our outreach online. My work responsibilities expanded and so did my duties as a mom.
My girls, their teachers and I worked as a team to set up an engaging online learning environment with minimal disruption to their lives. But we all had to learn new technologies at once, which was stressful. There were times when connectivity issues forced classes to start late, or when I was required to be in work meetings and my kids needed help. It made it challenging to balance remote work and remote learning.
I’m not alone, and that’s the problem. Childcare providers in Georgia and across the country are expected to always work, with no relief or support, and these providers are mostly Black women.
At the federal level, we’re finally seeing some promise with President Biden’s introduction of the American Jobs Plan, which includes $400 billion for the care economy. This plan could drastically improve both working conditions for caregivers and support options for older adults and people with disabilities needing care.
“For too long, the U.S. has lacked any kind of care infrastructure—living wages and benefits for all care workers, universal paid family and medical leave, quality and affordable childcare and elder care— a scarcity rooted in anti-Blackness,” says Dominique Derbigny Sims, senior vice president of the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute. “For centuries, Black women were forced to care for the families of enslavers and then relegated to low-wage domestic and care jobs after slavery was abolished, industries where Black women remain overrepresented. This is the legacy of Black women, providing care to others even when we aren’t cared for in return. Our country underpays care workers because child and family care are still seen as Black women’s work and we fail to provide adequate childcare options because women’s roles as mothers is invisibilized.”
And this shameful history has left a stain on Georgia. At a time when Black women are a major block of the workforce and three in four Black mothers in Georgia are key family breadwinners, a lack of childcare options is another obstacle in the way of success.
To top it off, Georgia is tied with Wyoming for the lowest state minimum wage, where some workers can be paid poverty wages as low as $5.15 per hour, which tells us everything we need to know about how little workers are valued here. And although Georgia recently passed three weeks of paid family leave for state workers, we need a minimum of 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers. A lack of paid leave has resulted in lost wages and reduced labor force participation, just as the coronavirus crisis has driven millions of women out of the labor force.
It’s time we shift these tides and prioritize the needs of workers, especially care workers who are disproportionately Black and brown women who have been on the front lines through the U.S. epidemic and recession. Organizations working in racial justice, gender equity, workers’ rights and a number of other progressive issues have come together to demand investment in a stronger system of care across generations.
The American Jobs Plan is an important step towards honoring care work as the vital human infrastructure that it is, and Georgia needs to get on board. While Biden’s plan seeks to expand access to home- and community-based care and improve conditions for care workers, it will be up to states to implement these changes. Given Georgia’s unwillingness to fully expand Medicaid, leaving hundreds of thousands of people without healthcare coverage during a pandemic, we need a guarantee that a comprehensive care infrastructure will be available to all Georgians.
We know the cost of inaction on care and wages. Georgia’s lack of childcare infrastructure leads to at least $1.75 billion in economic activity losses every year, and an additional $105 million in annual tax revenue losses.
Black women are the backbone of this state, and we have an opportunity to drastically improve Georgia’s economy by lifting up the community that’s given it so much. Black women care for their families alongside other people’s children, elders and families. We must care for our caregivers and care workers. When we invest in care infrastructure, we invest in all of us.
Tamieka Atkins is the executive director of ProGeorgia, Georgia’s state-based, non-partisan voter engagement advocacy organization. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her two daughters.