A Crisis for Caregivers

For Jewish women, like all women across the world, one of the most crucial issues at hand is how we care for ourselves, our families and our communities. This burden falls most directly on immigrant women workers, but as women and Jews we represent our Jewish values by supporting and creating programs that improve wages, benefits and basic dignity. In the coming U.S. presidential election, confronting the problems of work/family balance and the crisis around care-giving must be a top priority.

We are facing a “care crisis” (as historian, journalist and Longview Institute senior fellow Ruth Rosen and others have pointed out) in which increasing numbers of women have joined the formal workforce, leaving the tasks of primary caregiver for their children, parents and partners more fraught than ever. In New York State there are over 3 million households whose economic status is “near poor.” Individuals continue to bear the burden of balancing meaningful and fulfilling work in the world with meeting the needs of children and aging parents.

Most people experience this crisis in the privacy of their own homes and workplaces, a compartmentalization which falsely frames the need as individual, rather than the result of systemic problems. In reality, our neighbors both locally and globally are struggling against the same negative impacts of bad government policies. The defunding and privatization of necessary social services has shifted the burden of care-taking from the public sphere to the private. At the same time, the U.S., unlike other industrialized nations, provides no guaranteed support systems (stipends for children, paid paternity leave, etc.)

Like the midwives Shifra and Puah, who brought baby Moses into this world and conspired with his sister Miriam to protect him, caregivers can be organized and powerful. The experiences of primarily immigrant women of color, who fill the service sector across the U.S., are largely invisible. Like our Jewish ancestors who worked in domestic service when they first came to this country, caregivers today are regularly denied dignity, respect, fair pay and basic benefits.

There are alternative models of governmental policies that value care and thus create sustainable care-giving experiences for families and care workers. These include new legislation, such as the New York State Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, one example of what is being proposed in states across the U.S. to include domestic care workers in basic labor protections, from which they have been exempt. At the same time, we need to support the development of affordable housing, child care subsidies and universal health care. This is a movement to support all women to work up to their full potential with dignity and support.

For a detailed take on what to do when you are hiring household help, look at “Who Cleans Your House,” Lilith Summer 2006.

Dara Silverman is Executive Director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (jfrej.org). She is co-creator of the “Love and Justice in Times of War Haggadah.” and is on the board of Resource Generation. dara@jfrej.org.