We've basically added a whole 'nother generation onto our life span without any of the necessary support.
And so I think it's actually quite solvable, and people have been working on solutions for decades.
[Theme music playing] ♪ Any one of us who has had or been a nanny, a housekeeper, a caretaker for the elderly or disabled knows that the partnership with the family can be a nightmare or one of life's great blessings.
However it goes down, the work of caring for our parents, our houses, and our kids makes all other work possible.
In many cases, the millions of people who shape the most consequential moments of our lives-- how we enter the world and how we leave it-- don't make enough money to take care of themselves.
Ai-jen Poo, a MacArthur "Genius," has been organizing domestic workers since she graduated from Columbia in 1996, ensuring they have the same structure and security that we give to every other job we value.
I'm Kelly Corrigan.
This is "Tell Me More," and here is my conversation with one of "Time's" most influential people in the world and Meryl Streep's date to the Golden Globes, activist Ai-jen Poo.
So the people that you're worried about, the domestic workers all across America... Mm-hmm.
are doing this work that touches us all.
But we don't really think of it as "real" work.
We still refer to it as "help," right... Uh-huh.
as opposed to the profession it is for millions of women, especially women of color who get up every day, and their job is to take care of us, to make sure the most important aspects of our lives are in really good hands.
It's hard work and requires so much skill and determination and strength-- physical strength, emotional strength-- and somehow we have underestimated it, undervalued it, made it invisible, even though it's the most fundamental life force energy work.
It's the work that makes everything else possible in our lives.
How many people is that?
So, in home care alone, it's 3 million workers today, and the number is expected to grow by 4.7 million in the next 10 years.
Oh, my God.
Yeah, because of the huge demand for elder care.
So there will be 7 million people in this category that-- Just doing home and community-based services for the elderly and people with disabilities.
If you include childcare and all the people who are providing care in facilities, I mean, some economists are predicting it could be the largest occupation in the entire U.S. workforce soon.
And right now, they're poverty-wage jobs that...
no one can sustain in.
Why don't we see caregiving as a "profession"?
I think that it's because of who's done it as a profession.
It's always been women of color.
Some of our first domestic workers who were original caregivers were enslaved African women, and we've treated the workforce as less than real work because in our culture, we see a set of people as less than fully human, or have historically, and our ability to rehumanize and revalue everyone in our society, in our economy, and our culture is really bound up in this whole way that we've treated care and caregivers.
Well, you know, it's interesting.
It's kind of become more apparent through the pandemic, right?
Kelly: 'Cause all these people had to stop working.
If you can't get that work done, then you can't do your professional job.
Ai-jen: That's right.
Each of us had our own version of a care crisis in the pandemic, I think: kids home from school or daycare, parents on lockdown in nursing homes, parents thousands of miles away.
It all came to a boiling point in the pandemic, where I think we realized we're doing the very best we can... Yeah.
and it's not enough.
Yeah, I mean, it's a real reveal.
Well, also, the numbers are changing so much.
So I saw in your book that 10,000 people turn 65 every day.
And 70% of them will need some kind of support or care.
And by 2050, there will be 27 million people in this category.
Yeah, and it's amazing that we know that we are aging as a country... Uh-huh.
We're all living longer, thanks to advances in healthcare and medicine.
This huge generation of baby boomers is aging and living longer.
We need more care than ever before, and we have no real infrastructure in place to support it except for this underpaid, overworked workforce of caregivers.
Do you feel optimistic that at a cultural level and also at a legislative level, we are sort of slowly grokking that the silver tsunami is coming?
Isn't that funny that we call it a silver tsunami?
Yeah, 'cause it's such a negative thing, right?
It's a natural disaster, a tsunami.
But of the fact that people are actually aging and living longer is a beautiful thing.
It's-- Well, good for you for resetting that.
It's like longer aging is living.
Like, people forget.
People forget that...
but we do need new infrastructure and policy in place to support a quality of life as we live.
We've basically added a whole 'nother generation onto our lifespan without any of the necessary support.
And so I think it's actually quite solvable, and people have been working on solutions for decades.
And all your insight in this area comes from listening.
Where were you meeting people to talk about their work as domestic workers?
Well, I was in New York City, and if you've ever lived in New York, you know that you could go walk down any street in Manhattan during a work day and just see lots of women of color, pushing white babies in strollers and wonder, "Wow, that's a whole thing here."
You know, and I was a college student, and right after I finished college, I started volunteering with a project to organize women who were working in low-wage service jobs, and I went to the parks and the playgrounds of New York City and listened... Said, "Hi, I'm Ai-jen"?
Yeah, and I did it for years.
I used to be known as the Chinese lady with the flyers 'cause I would come and invite people to trainings and meetings, but really just kind of sit down on a park bench next to a nanny and just ask her how she's doing and what her life is like.
What's a thing that you could have only understood by listening?
The power of caregiving and caring.
I remember one of the first cases of abuse of a domestic worker that I ever worked on... Uh-huh.
involved a young Jamaican woman who was brought to this country to work for--as a nanny for a family in Texas at the age of 16.
And they promised her mother in Jamaica that she could go to school and have a U.S. education and also be paid a wage for working as their nanny.
And so they agreed, and she worked for them for 15 years and was never paid, never allowed to go to school.
She was essentially enslaved for 15 years, and we worked with her to try to win justice for what she had endured, and when we asked her if she wanted to press criminal charges, she said no because she didn't want the children to grow up without their parents.
So she cared more about the kids of these people that treated her so poorly.
To her, it wouldn't have been justice if the kids that she loved and cared for so much were harmed as deeply as they would have been harmed.
Like, it really clicked for me that as a profession, the workers, their job is to care, no matter what.
I wanted to read something from your book that I found really moving.
You're very close to your grandparents.
"After my grandmother's stroke, she could no longer care for herself."
With tremendous courage and love, for years, your grandfather cooked every meal, talked to her, and kept her comfortable until the end.
"One of my greatest regrets in life," you say, "is that we did not provide him with the same comfort and care in the final moments of his life."
I think about him all the time, and he's a huge... reason why I do this work.
The idea that the people who raised us and cared for us our whole lives wouldn't have good care in their final days, their scariest days, the days when they maybe feel the most alone or the most uncertain, to not have those days be supported with the kind of dignity and love and...presence that they deserve is so heartbreaking.
And that heartbreak is happening at scale, every day in our country.
Empathy is a big thread here... Yeah.
because I remember, when my dad died, being in the hospice with him at the very end, and having this sort of surreal and sudden appreciation that every single person I was looking at... Mmm.
the 29-year-old nurse, myself, my mother, my brothers, the janitor in the hall, we were all going to go through this thing that he was going through.
And once you know that, you'll never go back.
So every old person is just you later.
That is so profound, and I almost wish we could give everyone the experience...
of going through that with someone that they love.
Or even the experience of being in a very old body, like, how hard it is...
to get out of bed, how hard it is to put the shoes on.
This visceral empathy could solve a lot of problems.
It's this great irony that it's this one need that we all share.
It's, like, fundamental to being human.
And it's the thing that we've kind of, like...denied.
The two big problem-solving levers are changing the culture and changing the laws.
What can they legislate that will work?
Well, the way I think about care policy is there is really three pillars to it.
There's childcare, there's elder care--or people call it long-term care-- and then there's paid family and medical leave.
And what we have to do on all three fronts is make those programs accessible to as many people as possible, and we need to invest in the workers who are really the backbone of those policies, who deliver the child care services or the home care services.
I feel like... the ideal scenario is that you become "part of the family"...
but that creates-- it kind of blurs the vibe a little bit because is it OK to pay someone to be caring?
We sometimes compare this work to the wild west because you never really know what you're gonna get.
You might find, like, a wonderful family where there's just a lot of mutual respect...
And then you get the whole other end of the spectrum, where you see nonpayment of wages, sexual harassment and assault, human trafficking, all kinds of horrific abuses that you couldn't even really fathom happening inside of a home.
And then there's everything in between, and I think it's because we have this part of the economy that we have so undervalued and kind of made invisible, allowed for it to exist in the shadows... Mm-hmm.
in a way that's really unhealthy for everyone.
Yeah, and I think it seems reasonable that it could be related to this set of biases we have... Yeah.
against immigrants, against women...
against people of color.
No, I absolutely think that at the end of the day, our economy is organized in sort of a hierarchy of human value... Mm-hmm.
or the lives and the contributions of some people are valued more than others.
And for women of color, they're at the bottom of the totem pole, and this work has always been associated with them.
So, in some ways, it kind of legitimizes the idea that they should be paid less, seen as less than real workers.
And I think it would also help for us to have public policies that invest in these jobs becoming living-wage jobs that you can actually support your family on, and one generation could do better than the next, just like we did with manufacturing jobs in the twenties and thirties.
Those jobs used to be dangerous sweatshop jobs that a lot of immigrant women did, earning a poverty wage, and we turned those jobs into good jobs that you could take pride in, the biggest runway to the middle class for generations, and we can do the same for these care jobs.
God, I love your optimism.
Just you really make it seem like there are ways out, there are roads out.
There are, and we're actually talking about them right now.
I mean, I think there is an unprecedented number of women in Congress.
We have a woman in the white House as Vice President of the United States, a woman of color.
She was also the lead sponsor of the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights when she was in the Senate.
And we have a different awareness about how essential caregiving is.
We are on the precipice of transforming the way that we think, feel, and value this work in this country.
I think it's our generation's work.
I was reading about the Bill of Rights that you proposed for all domestic workers.
And I was struck at how humble-- It's pretty basic.
It's pretty basic.
Things like sick days are in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, 82% of domestic workers came into the pandemic without a single paid sick day.
So we're talking about essential workers.
They were the only lifeline to some of the people who are most vulnerable to COVID-19 itself.
So they had to stay healthy, not only for themselves and their own families, but for the people in their care.
Didn't have health care, didn't have paid sick days.
Had a really hard time getting PPE.
We had so many members who were making PPE out of tablecloths, and what the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights does is it make sure that they have a baseline of rights and protections, and it also tries to create a framework for the future, where domestic workers, employers who hire them, and the government can actually be at the table to talk about the unique challenges of working inside of someone's home... Mm-hmm.
and what additional protections might be needed over time.
I mean, another really simple thing that's in the Bill of Rights is that in any given week, a person should have 24 consecutive hours off.
Which seems... As if, yeah.
like not much to ask, but there are so many domestic workers who are working three weeks in a row, live-in, without a day off, and so, yeah, so we have to create some guidelines around that.
You've worked on a Bill of Rights in New York, but then, also, across the entire country, have created sort of a revised Bill of Rights.
And it's only three paid days off?
So, yeah, so in the New York Bill, it was only three paid days off per year.
And it passed and you did it.
Yes, a decade ago.
This is our Bill of Rights that we won... Yeah.
Ai-jen: And now we're working on a national Bill of Rights for every domestic worker in the country.
And are you optimistic?
Did you make a bunch of changes from the New York Bill of Rights to the federal?
So the New York Bill was the first bill in the country to ever try to establish basic rights for domestic workers.
And since then, nine states have passed state-level laws, and what the national Bill does is it takes the best of the state-level bills so it addresses all these exclusions from labor rights at the federal level that have been around since the 1930s, and it also creates some new protections like paid sick days and a Standards Board and access to training.
We're basically trying to update what it looks like to have basic protections when your workplace is someone's home.
So, at "Tell Me More," we have this tradition where we ask our main guest to point us towards someone who's totally changed your thinking or your work or serves as an inspiration or support for you.
So who did you pick?
I chose Namrata, who is a nanny in New York City, and she has been an inspiration to me for years and was a part of the first campaign to win a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in New York and has been organizing her sisters in the Nepali community who work as caregivers and domestic workers to participate, to get involved, and to be a part of achieving the kind of recognition and respect that she so deserves.
We went and talked to Namrata, and here's what she had to say about you.
I came to U.S. in the year 2000.
I was a lawyer back home, so I thought that once a lawyer is every time a lawyer, and thinking that everyone used to say that America is like a bed of roses.
No one had to share the struggle of this country.
I came here and tried to enroll the college, which was very hard for me.
I feel shameful.
I think that my dreams were scattered.
I went to the two colleges over here where most people recommended back home, but I could not enroll in that because of the financial, yeah, crisis, and that's why I have to change my career and became a nanny.
Still now, people look-- this domestic work as not a real work.
I wish all people would know that this job makes all other job possible.
If I don't go to the job, my employer won't be able to go to her practice, and so that we are raising the future citizens of this country.
Sometimes I'm being a nurse, a teacher, a musician, like, I play many roles, a second mom.
If I had done my law degree, I would not have like, seen the change in many, many people's life.
But because of being a nanny, I have seen so many things.
I'm proud of myself being a professional nanny.
It is a great honor to be chosen as Ai-jen's plus one.
She never stops.
Some of us have limited literacy.
She is the voice for the voiceless, and she gives us power.
She is a great woman.
I'm very much inspired by Ai-jen.
Well, she is amazing, as you know.
And I'm struck by her saying a voice for the voiceless because clearly she has a voice, and that's what my experience has been, is that it's the leadership and the courage of people like her that eventually will change everything for all of us.
What could we be learning from Germany or Japan?
This whole idea that we need to be putting infrastructure in place to care for each other.
How do they do it?
They have--the government basically invests in universal access to long-term care for the aging population.
It's part of their healthcare system.
We don't, in the United States, currently have a long-term care program that's publicly funded and available to everyone.
What we have is Medicaid, and you have to be eligible for Medicaid and basically have no income and no assets, but a lot of people are eligible for Medicaid.
And a ton of people are able to access long-term care through Medicaid.
And is it more or less enough?
No, but what we're on the verge of is investing in it so that we can actually make home and community care much more accessible through the Medicaid Program.
70% of the home care Workforce works through the Medicaid program, and so Congress is currently discussing a big investment that would raise the wages of that workforce so that the caregivers could actually take care of themselves and their families.
And also not burn out and not turn over.
I mean, that's a-- That's a huge issue.
It's really tough, and it's almost inevitable if you're earning $17,000 per year.
That's how much, in 2021, home care workers on average earn in this country.
You came into this work in a personal way.
Your grandmother had a really great caregiver, Mrs. Sun.
Tell us about your grandma.
Mmm, my grandmother, she actually--she passed away a year ago in the pandemic.
Oh, I'm sorry.
But--no, it-- you know, she passed away at home, and she was able to live at home to the very end.
She had a stroke that was pretty debilitating towards the end of her life, and my mom became her full-time caregiver and was assisted by hospice caregivers.
So my grandmother had these wonderful caregivers, including Mrs. Sun, for the decade that she started to become more frail and need more assistance.
And she was able to play mahjong with her friends, watch NBA games, and she was able to go to church.
She even sang in the church choir... Oh, how great.
Uh-huh, right up until she had a stroke, and was because she had this assistance and these caregivers who made all of that possible.
All of that enabled her to stay at home.
So when you think about this at an individual level, rather than, like, a cultural or legislative level, what's a conversation that everybody who's watching this who has a caregiver in their life, for one reason or another should ask, or a conversation that those two people should have together tonight?
Well, first, I think we should just all recognize and celebrate the caregivers in our lives in a different way, and that might mean just offering gratitude more regularly.
Or it might mean having a regular conversation about a raise, figuring out some small steps to create a culture of good, healthy communication and recognition around caregiving, whether it's done by family members or a professional.
I love the line, "a budget is a moral document."
It's so true.
And at a federal level and also at an individual level.
What do you spend your money on?
Just shows what you value.
It is a statement of values, right?
And a statement of what we value.
And as a country, we haven't invested in care.
We haven't invested in our ability to have child care, paid leave, or long-term care for the people that we love, and we haven't invested in our caregivers, and that is what we have the opportunity to change right now.
And we're talking about a federal budget that invests in a transformative way in our ability to take care of our families.
And that is-- I mean, it is the most important building block of the future that I can imagine.
They're our future selves, too.
Yes, no, that's right!
Do you know that we have a speed round to "Tell Me More"?
Are you ready?
Yes, I'm ready for this.
What is your guilty pleasure?
Talk to me, baby.
Best live performance?
Beyonce, Soldier Field in the rain, and she did "Purple Rain."
Oh, that's so good.
Last book that blew you away.
Chanel Miller, "Know my Name."
Other than your family, who would you cancel anything for?
Vice President Harris.
What's your go-to mantra for hard times?
You've only ever survived.
Oh, that's great.
If you could say 4 words to anyone, who would you address and what would you say?
I would say to my grandmother that "I miss you so much."
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