Host Angela Glover Blackwell w/ Guests Michelle Morton and Ai-jen Poo
An economy that works for all depends on a robust system of caregiving. That has become all too clear during the pandemic, as 2.5 million women were pushed out of the workforce to care for family members. This episode of Radical Imagination looks at the growing movement to reimagine care across the lifespan, recognize it as essential infrastructure, invest in it, and improve wages and labor protections for the workers — mostly Black and immigrant women —we trust to care for the people we love.
Host Angela Glover Blackwell talks with Chicago caregiver and community advocate Michelle Morton about the challenges of caring for her parents and children throughout the pandemic. We also hear from Ai-jen Poo, the visionary leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, about #CareCantWait, a campaign to make universal access to child care, paid family and medical leave, and home and community-based services a centerpiece of economic recovery.
Michelle Morton is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s west side Austin neighborhood. She still currently resides in Austin along with her beautiful daughter Deiondra. Michelle’s advocacy work began in 2008 after the birth of her daughter. After becoming a mother, Michelle wanted to see things improve in her daughter’s education. Michelle regularly attended meetings of a west side advocacy group called the Austin Wide Parent Network a branch of the city wide parent organization POWER-PAC (Parents Organized to Win Educate and Renew Policy Action Council). Michelle has worked tirelessly as a Headstart Ambassador, Early Learning Committee Member, STOP (Stepping out of Poverty) Campaign Member as well as other COFI/POWER PAC initiatives. Michelle wants to see every African American and Latinx child receive an equitable and quality education. She’s also interested in seeing everyone live a life above the poverty line. Michelle is currently serving as Co-President of COFI/POWER PAC Illinois and also as a delegate of the West Side Branch of POWER PAC Illinois. When Michelle is not advocating for our rights she loves spending time with her family and friends. Michelle also loves shopping dates with her daughter Deiondra, fine dining, concerts, movies, and traveling.
Ai-jen Poo is a next-generation labor leader, award-winning organizer, author, and a leading voice in the women’s movement. She is the Executive Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Director of Caring Across Generations, Co-Founder of SuperMajority and Trustee of the Ford Foundation. Ai-jen is a nationally recognized expert on elder and family care, the future of work, gender equality, immigration, narrative change, and grassroots organizing. She is the author of the celebrated book, The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America. Together with Alicia Garza, Ai-jen co-hosts the podcast, Sunstorm. Follow her at @aijenpoo.
She has been recognized among Fortune’s 50 World’s Greatest Leaders and Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and she has been the recipient of countless awards, including a 2014 MacArthur "Genius" Award. Ai-jen has been a featured speaker at TEDWomen, Aspen Ideas Festival, Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, Skoll World Forum, and the Obama Foundation Inaugural Summit. She has made TV appearances on Nightline, MSNBC, and Morning Joe, and her writing has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, Maire Claire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and CNN.com among others. Ai-jen has been an influential voice in the #MeToo movement and attended the 2018 Golden Globe Awards with Meryl Streep as part of the launch of #TimesUp.
In 12 short years, with the help of more than 70 local affiliate organizations and chapters and over 200,000 members, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has passed Domestic Worker Bills of Rights in 9 states and the city of Seattle, and brought over 2 million home care workers under minimum wage protections. In 2011, Ai-jen launched Caring Across Generations to unite American families in a campaign to achieve bold solutions to the nation’s crumbling care infrastructure. The campaign has catalyzed groundbreaking policy change in states including the nation’s first family caregiver benefit in Hawai’i, and the first long-term care social insurance fund in Washington State.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 0:06
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Today we focus our attention on a new vision for how care works in this country. Domestic workers and caregivers have long been undervalued, underpaid, and perform difficult work with little labor protections or government standards. But before we dive into imagining a new care industry, we turn to a story that helps us better understand the dedication, reliability, and skills that caregiving entails. Michelle Morton is a caregiver from Chicago. She cares for elderly parents, her daughter, and two young children all while navigating through a dysfunctional system and during a pandemic. She is also an advocate in her own community and she's helping lead a revolution around caregiving. Today she joins us from her home in the middle of a regular workday. Michelle, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Michelle Morton: 1:13
Thank you. I'm happy to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:15
Let me jump right in. How long have you been a caregiver and who have you been caring for throughout the years?
Michelle Morton: 1:22
I've been a caregiver for quite a few years. I've been my mother's medicinal power of attorney for the last six or seven years. So everything medical that the doctors want to do, they have to speak to me first and make sure I'm aware of everything, from the changes of medication to having her come in for her monthly appointments. I have a soon-to-be 13-year-old daughter. And I also take care of a three-year old and a four-year-old niece and nephew of mine.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 1:52
You were also taking care of your father for a while .
Michelle Morton: 1:55
My dad. I didn't start until after he retired and was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I took over taking care of my father during the course of his radiation treatments. He drove himself there every day, along with my help . And , um, he came through cancer-free and now he's back to his old self. I don't have to do as much for my dad, but I still take care of my mother's needs.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 2:20
What is your environment like where you're doing this work?
Michelle Morton: 2:23
At this very moment, mom and dad is watching their favorite show In The Heat of the Night. My daughter Deandra is just going back to her social science class. The babies are napping. So this is kind of my quiet time in the day.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 2:42
What's a typical day with you having all these responsibilities. I'm assuming that your mother is living with you also?
Michelle Morton: 2:48
Yes, we all live together.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 2:51
So everybody is there. What's a typical day for you?
Michelle Morton: 2:54
A typical Michelle Day: The babies come in about 6:30 because that's when their dad leaves for work. Mom take her rest until about nine. So while the babies and my daughter are in school, I get time with them and their mom gets up about nine. We fix her breakfast and make sure she takes her morning meds and get the day started for her, which includes sometimes medical appointments and following appointments with the doctor because during COVID , you know, we're not allowed to go in with them now. They have to go into the doctor's office alone. So that's kind of a tedious task of making sure that I'm able to talk to her doctors and find out everything that's going on with her being at home while she's there.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:39
And I understand that your mother had a caregiver who passed due to COVID. Is that right?
Michelle Morton: 3:45
Yes. Her caregiver passed. Will be a year this April.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 3:50
And how have your caregiving responsibilities changed since the start of the pandemic?
Michelle Morton: 3:55
Since the start of the pandemic, since everybody's been at home, the needs for my parents have been me being more involved in their care because their doctor's appointments have went to the phone, instead of being in person. I have to pay attention to taking my dad's blood pressure and taking my mom's temps . So I have all their vitals for their doctors. Where they called and my mother is a diabetic making sure all her sugar dialogues I in order for when her endocrinologist call and make sure her diabetes is still on point the way it was pre-pandemic. So it's more hands-on, in the sense of I'm doing the vitals, instead of when I get to the doctor, they're doing the vitals. So I have to do all that and keep a log for the doctors now, more so than I had pre-pandemic.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 4:44
And what keeps the little ones occupied when you're having to do that medical work?
Michelle Morton: 4:49
They like to help. So I let them hold the thermometer, when I take ones temp. They like to help and pass me the utensils. They feel like they help and grandma and papa.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:00
I bet that makes them feel good, too. And let's talk about your mom some more. Why is it important for you to be involved in your mother's care? What's the role of your advocacy and making sure that she's getting what she needs?
Michelle Morton: 5:13
I want to be there to speak up for my mom and make sure they're hearing her. So I learned as a child, my mom took care of her mom that way. So I noticed, you know, going to the doctor with my mom and my grandmother, that they would always look to the person who's their caregiver to give them more insight on what is going on. So I like to be there as my mom's advocate and let them know that she's doing what s he supposed to to keep her rheumatism as well as her diabetes under control.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 5:48
Michelle, if you were to take a step back and re-imagine the way care works in this country, without some of the challenges that you've witnessed and experienced, what would the care system look like if you could re-imagine it?
Michelle Morton: 6:00
It will be an equal playing field. Our seniors wouldn't get selective care based upon where they live. In this city, where I live, according to your zip code. Sometimes, you're not able to get the insurance you need to pay for the care you need. And I would love to see a level playing field for seniors of color.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 6:32
And what do you think the care system should pay attention to in terms of pay, and benefits, and taking care of the needs of the caregiver within the system?
Michelle Morton: 6:43
We need our care up to par too , because we have to be in good care to be able to take care of the people that we take care of. And pay? They don't give us enough money to do what we do. The gap in how much we get paid in comparison to people who works in a doctor's office is far too wide. Even more now in a pandemic, we're doing the same thing you're doing, but we're doing it at home with them on a daily basis, taking their vitals, making sure that meds are accurate, making sure they're doing everything that you told us to do for them, but our pay does not suggest that that's what we do. I do it for my parents because of the love I have for them.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 7:32
How would you think about the importance of the caregiver in that larger context?
Michelle Morton: 7:37
Caregivers are important in that light because some people can't afford to take off their job to be able to take care of their parents and other loved ones. They can't afford it. Their bills outweigh what they need to do for their parents. And we come in and we do everything that needs to be done to make life easier for the people that we're helping. The families appreciate us. We just need other people to shine a light on the importance of what we do.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:15
Michelle, thank you for talking with us today.
Michelle Morton: 8:18
You're so welcome.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 8:22
Michelle Martin is the community advocate and caregiver based in Chicago. Coming up on Radical Imagination, we hear about a radical effort to re-imagine how care works in this country. Stay with us. More when we come back.
Are you someone who wants to create a society where all can participate in prosper? Visit our website at RadicalImagination.us to take action and connect with campaigns and organizations around issues covered by this podcast. It's crucial that we get support to continue to lift up stories and solutions to address our most pressing problems. To do this, we need you to tell your friends and family about Radical Imagination. Ask them to subscribe, share, and comment on their chosen podcast platform. Like what you've heard today? Tell us about it. Go to Apple podcasts , to rate and review radical imagination. And thank you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 9:38
And we're back. Before COVID, women caregivers were already two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than non-caregivers performing billions of dollars in unpaid labor each year. The pandemic has worstened than the financial strain on parents and other caregivers. The burden has fallen disproportionately on Black and immigrant women who have had to care for other families while still finding a way to care for their own. For more on this, we're joined by Ai-Jen Poo. She's the co-founder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which is pushing along with many other organizations for radically re-imagined care industry. Ai-jen, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Ai-jen Poo: 10:22
Thank you so much, Angela. It's so good to be in conversation with you .
Angela Glover Blackwell: 10:26
What kinds of jobs are we talking about when we refer to the care industry?
Ai-jen Poo: 10:31
We're talking about all of the jobs that support families across the lifespan. That's early childhood educators, childcare providers, and it's also homecare workers, home health aides, people who support the elderly and people with chronic illnesses and people with disabilities to live independently in their homes and communities. There's basically a whole army of workers who are overwhelmingly women and disproportionately women of color who do the work to care for the people that we love in order to make everything else possible in our economy. That's who care workers are.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 11:15
What are some of the biggest struggles that workers in this industry face and how far back in time do these trends go?
Ai-jen Poo: 11:22
Well, you know, you think about the work itself of caregiving, it's work that's always been associated with women and in many ways taken for granted that women will just do and figure out. And as a profession, it's been associated with women of color, especially Black women and immigrant women of color. And some of our first domestic workers for example, were enslaved African women and the history of racism and the legacy of slavery in this country has deeply shaped how we've treated this workforce in law and policy. The best example, being in the New Deal context, when Congress was debating the labor laws that would become the foundation of our nation's labor policy, Southern Dixiecrats refused to support those measures if they included protections for farm workers and domestic workers who were Black workers at the time. And so those laws were enacted with those exclusions and those exclusions really shaped how we treated this workforce as less than real work. And if you think about it, Angela, we still refer to care work as 'help' as opposed to a real profession because of that history.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 12:47
How do people find work get paid and what are the working conditions like? And I know it has to vary, but is there a general description of these things? Well, I would say that the industry is incredibly dis- aggregated. Meaning that, you could go into any neighborhood and not know which homes are also workplaces. There are even daycare centers that are inside of homes and care is happening everywhere, but there is a part of the care workforce whose income is funded through publicly funded programs like Medicaid, for example. And the one common thread across the board. Whether we're looking at a institution or center based care, or we're looking at publicly funded or privately unded care; the one common denominator is the low wages and the lack of access to a safety net. The average annual income of a home care worker for example is only $17,000 per year. Can you imagine? So the people that we're counting on to take care of us and our loved ones can hardly take care of themselves and their own loved ones on the income that they earn. And that is what we need to change. It is shocking how people rely on others to care for the thing that is most important in their lives and care so little for the people who are doing it. How has the pandemic altered the lives of caregivers and why is addressing it so important right now? The pandemic has allowed us to see so many of the inequities and the injustices and the fragilities of the way that the economy functioned before. And I think what happened when everybody was at home and realizing that it's impossible to take care of your loved ones on your own managing at home while working and right people had children home from school, struggling with online learning while they were trying to work remotely. They had parents who were being evacuated from nursing homes. Everything came crashing down in the pandemic, and I think it really highlighted, for the general public in an unprecedented way, just how important caregiving is, and how much we need public policy and a real infrastructure to support our caregiving needs in this day and age. Through your work with the National Domestic Workers Alliance and caring across generations, you've won domestic workers' Bill of Rights in 10 different States and federal overtime and minimum wage protections for more than 2 million home care workers. Could you talk about what that meant for the industry for workers?
Well, I'm happy to report that Virginia just became the most recent state to pass a domestic workers' bill of rights. And we have two cities, Philadelphia and Seattle that have passed groundbreaking legislation to protect the rights of domestic workers. We have sought to bring domestic workers under equal protections in the States labor laws, and that can be inclusion and wage protections. In the state of Massachusetts, we were able to win maternity leave or parental leave. Iunnch , the city of Philadelphia, we were able to win a portable paid time off mandate so that the 16,000 domestic workers now have the right to paid time off. What we're trying to do is not just bring domestic workers under protections that were put into place for workers in the 1930s, but really chart the way forward so that these jobs can be a real pathway to economic security and mobility for the workers who do it. And how is it enforced? How do people know what their rights are and how are workers able to make sure that their rights are respected and protected? It's just uniquely complicated to think about how you raise and enforce standards, but organizing is a powerful tool and it's one of the reasons why changing our culture and changing the narrative about this work has also been such a huge part of our strategy. Making sure that people really do understand that this is a profession and it's work equal to all other forms of work. And that if you employ someone to work in your home, that there's also an obligation to recognize and support the rights of worker. It is your responsibility to do so. And so I think it is a long-term effort to try to change the way that we culturally think feel, and treat this workforce. And I think now is the time as we have a huge and growing need for care in this country. Home care, for example is one of the fastest growing occupations in the entire US Labor market, because there's such a huge need for this work. And so if ever there was a time to really professionalize and change the way that we treat this work, it really is now.
Angela Glover Blackwell:
What are some of the other changes – your organization's and those you're in solidarity with – have you been able to accomplish so far?
We have actually created a portable benefits platform that allows for employers of domestic workers to contribute on a prorated basis to their house cleaners or their nannies ability to have access to benefits for the very first time. So for example, if you have someone come clean your home, if you sign up for the Alia platform, you can make a contribution on top of the cleaning fee into her benefits account. And she can accrue contributions from all of her clients. And eventually she can decide what benefits she wants to apply the money in her benefits account towards. It's an innovation that we think really demonstrates that everyone who works deserves benefits. And we need to be thinking about how we innovate to make sure that all of the workers who are working in our economy have access to a safety net. And if ever there was a time when that was both urgent and essential, it's coming out of this pandemic where so many people lost their jobs, lost their income and had the sort of foundation fall out from underneath them. And we really do need to figure out how we build a safety net that keeps everyone safe.
Angela Glover Blackwell:
And I understand that now there's a national campaign to build an equitable care infrastructure and that this is being led by Caring Across Generations and many other national gender equity organizations. Tell us about the campaign. It's so exciting. For the first time, all kinds of organizations who share common values about the incredible importance of supporting caregiving and our caregivers are working together. So it's childcare advocates, it's paid leave advocates, it's family, caregivers, it's people with disabilities and their advocates to ensure that as our new administration and Congress develop a plan for economic recovery out of the COVID crisis, that they really invest in our caregiving infrastructure and care jobs as a central component of that strategy. And when we think about the enormous numbers of women and women of color, who've been pushed out of the workforce because of caregiving challenges in the pandemic, what better way than ensuring that they can have access to care. I mean, every care job is a job enabling job. Every childcare provider, every home care worker is going to support other working age adults to get back to work again. And so our campaign is called #CareCantWait and we're working together to ensure that Congress and President Biden and Vice President Harris to hear from caregivers around the country and know that we are with them and championing a strong care infrastructure coming out of this economic crisis.
Angela Glover Blackwell:
What can we expect to happen on the policy front around care during the Biden administration?
Well, president Biden's agenda as part of build back better includes a really holistic vision for investing in our caregiving infrastructure for the 21st century. And it includes strengthening our childcare program and infrastructure. It includes paid leave. It includes strengthening our home care infrastructure for home and community-based services and strengthening the workforce. And our movement is going to be working to make that plan or reality. And if we're able, if we're successful, it will be a transformative change towards that vision that we just talked about. It will be a huge down payment on the ability to move us towards a 21st century universal caregiving infrastructure that I think will really allow us as a country to thrive in a totally different way.
Angela Glover Blackwell:
It has made it so clear that we are interdependent within this economy. And the care industry certainly is at the heart of it. This is a podcast called Radical Imagination and what we try to do is imagine what it is that we want and what we would all have and whathatt would be better if we could transform ourselves into a more caring economy in general, what would a re-imagine more equitable care industry actually look like, Ai-Jen?
Ai-Jen Poo: 23:29
Imagine, Angela, if from the time that you're considering having a family, you could count on the idea that if you give birth to a child, you could take time off and not have to about losing your job. So you could spend those early days with your newborn. And then when you're ready to go back to work, to know that you have access to good childcare quality, early childhood education for your child. And then if you were to develop a disability to know that you would have the support you needed to actually continue to live independently and be a fully participating and productive member of society. And then as you age and become more frail to know that you would have real options for your care, that you could potentially stay in your own home and still be the author of your own story, even as you become more frail and have a dignified quality of life into your older years. And it would also ensure that every single worker in our care economy has a living wage with benefits, economic security, the right to join a union. And if an immigrant, a pathway to citizenship, and we would secure an infrastructure for care for the 21st century.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 25:08
Ai-Jen, thank you for speaking with us.
Thank you for having me, Angela.
Angela Glover Blackwell:
Ai-Jen Poo is the executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and director of Caring Across Generations. After spending time with Ai-jen and Michelle, I'm filled with hope, awe, and appreciation. Hope that the nation will finally stop ascribing value of work based on the history of slavery and oppression and fully respect and fairly compensate those who care for the most important people in our lives. All of the incredible work that the Care Can't Wait campaign has done to change the culture and narrative of care in our country. And appreciation for the critical work that folks like Michelle do to make every other part of our economy possible. Radical Imagination operates in big and small ways to help us redesign a society in which all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential. We must use radical imagination to expand our vision of vital infrastructure beyond roads and bridges to include the complete array of people, advocating and caring for our loved ones. We and our partners at Unfinished invite you to reflect and respond to this question: "How would our society be different if we truly valued care?" Submit your ideas at radical imagination us or on social media using #RadicalImagination and hashtag #ThisIsUnfinished.
Radical Imagination was produced by Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andres Caballero, Antonio Cereijido, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Jess Alvarenga, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw Dameron, Elisheba Ittoop, Rosana Caban and Gabriela Baez. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Rachel Gichinga, Ferchil Ramos, Eugene Chan, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian and Vanice Dunn. Radical Imagination is supported by Omidyar Network, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Pivotal Ventures: a Melinda Gates company, and Unfinished. Our theme music is composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Segiura. And I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time. And in the meantime, you can find us online at RadicalImagination.US. Remember to subscribe and share.
Next time on Radical Imagination, Pleasure Activism.
media clip: 28:05
One of the things that is most natural about us is that we are wired for pleasure and connectedness and interdependence. We're wired for joy.
Angela Glover Blackwell: 28:14
That's next time on Radical Imagination.
- Building Our Care Infrastructure, the Caring Across Generations equitable care infrastructure framing paper
- The Care Economy as an Infrastructure Investment, Heather McCullough and Ai-Jen Poo, Hill Op-ed
- To End the Caregiving Crisis, Reimagine the Care Economy to Support Its Cornerstone: Black Women, Morning Consult
- Centering Black Workers in Economic Recovery, Issue 35, PolicyLink Covid, Race, and the Revolution