Arizona’s care infrastructure is already on the brink. Congress must fix that.

Recently, the U.S. Senate passed a bipartisan, $1 trillion infrastructure bill, delivering funding to our country’s roads, bridges, climate needs and broadband infrastructure. But this is just the first piece of much-needed infrastructure legislation.

The reconciliation budget package includes critical investments in women, caregivers and families — including child care investments, permanent paid family and medical leave, expanded health care access, making the American Rescue Plan’s Child Tax Credit permanent, ensuring that the bill is free of abortion restrictions or coverage bans and creating a pathway to citizenship.

There is no price tag on the wellbeing of our families. Without caregiving, the U.S. economy cannot function. The return on investment in the care economy for the people of Arizona is priceless, and our families cannot wait any longer.

Caregivers are our unsung heroes. They are the parents, family members, health care workers, early learning educators, care providers, home health aides and hospice workers that keep our communities running and healthy. I’ve seen firsthand how their work is routinely overlooked, underpaid, and dismissed — especially by our elected officials. This essential work overwhelmingly falls on women, New Americans, undocumented people, and women of color. Their work cannot and should not be dismissed. The COVID-19 pandemic re-affirmed that caregivers are the living infrastructure of this country who kept us safe as we fought a pandemic that ravaged our communities.

Our country’s care infrastructure was already precarious before the pandemic. It is now in free fall. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recently released a report that found that 80% of child care providers surveyed are experiencing a staffing shortage. The price of child care continues to rise and families are competing for limited spaces. Long-term care is also in crisis. Hundreds of thousands of older Americans are on the waitlist for in-home care, and care workers are chronically underpaid.

As a state representative, board member for New American Leaders and a We Demand More coalition member — a network of more than eighty progressive organizations fighting for women, particularly Black, Indigenous, Latina and other women of color, to be centered in COVID-19 relief and recovery — we know that, for women to succeed, we need to invest in comprehensive care infrastructure that works for everyone.

More than 75% of caregivers are female, and they are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, Latina, other women of color and immigrants. Nine out of 10 home-care workers in Arizona are women and more than half are people of color. Care resources can’t just be for a parent working an office job; it must benefit someone earning minimum wage at Amazon or a hospitality worker. Care that does not work for all of us does not work for any of us.

The Bipartisan Policy Center estimated in 2019 that, prior to the pandemic, 304,180 children in Arizona have a potential need for child care and only 234,720 child care spots in the state, with gaps exponentially wider in rural areas of the state. Arizona ranked second in the United States for relocating retirees over the age of 60, and 22% of our population is 65 years or older.  The Arizona Department of Health Services estimated that the number of Arizonans aged 65 and older is expected to nearly triple from 883,014 in 2010 to 2,422,186 in 2050.

Arizona’s care infrastructure is being pushed to the brink and it will only get worse.

Childcare is essential. Long-term care is essential. Paid family and medical leave is essential. Affordable and accessible health care is essential. A reconciliation bill free of abortion restrictions or coverage bans is essential. A pathway to citizenship is essential.

We are counting on Congress to pass a budget that invests in a comprehensive child care and early learning infrastructure that gives both families and care providers the tools they need so our economy can work for all of us. We are long-overdue for paid family and medical leave that guarantees at least 12 weeks of leave to ensure that families can show up for their loved ones without worrying about their paycheck. The tax credits from the American Rescue Plan are projected to slash child poverty by 50% and are reaching almost 90% of our children. We must make them permanent.

The people of Arizona deserve leaders who are committed to prioritizing the needs of the women, caregivers and families who elected them. Congress has shown that when they want to, they can pass meaningful policies that change the lives of millions of Americans. We need our leaders to follow through on the promises that got them elected and pass long overdue legislation that puts women, caregivers and families first.

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Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe
Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe

Rep. Athena Salman is the House Democratic Co-Whip, ranking member on the House Elections Committee and representative for District 26.