Think of someone you know who cares for another person. This might be a husband or wife who quit their job to care for an ailing partner, or a young parent who leaves the workforce to raise their newborn. It might be an adult devoting their whole day to helping an aging parent. Whatever the type of care or who’s performing it, there’s a common denominator: These people are doing work, but not getting paid.
Which doesn’t mean it’s unimportant to the economy. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: The AARP Public Policy Institute estimates that in 2013, the value of unpaid caregiving totaled around $470 billion, often due to the fact that people who volunteer to care for loved ones alleviate some dependency on public programs like Medicaid, or services like nonprofit home care or food assistance.
But the people giving care are economically overlooked—especially when it comes to accessing support from the federal government. While circumstances vary by state, it’s often a prerequisite for people to collect benefits like food stamps or housing assistance that they be receiving a paycheck or actively seeking labor. People generally need to work and earn money for at least 10 years to collect Social Security benefits. The Earned Income Tax Credit is one of the most popular and effective poverty-alleviating programs in the country, giving up to around $6,000 per household back to low-income families annually in the form of a tax credit. But you need to have some income before you can get it.
Policies like this are intended to incentivize people to work and contribute to the economy. But they ignore the fact that unpaid labor itself contributes to the economy.
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