The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Champion for domestic workers deservedly wins MacArthur “Genius Grant”

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Home care aide Malrissa Perkins feeds Alan B. Smith, 81, in Lincoln, Massachusetts on June 13, 2013. The number of personal care aides will increase 70% between 2010 and 2020, making it the fastest-growing job in the country, according to the US Department of Labor. Scott Eells / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Congrats to Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, organizing housekeepers, nannies and home health aides to expand workplace protections.

Given the generally low wages and bad working conditions of America’s one to two million domestic workers and the efforts of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) to improve their lives, Ai-jen Poo, NDWA’s executive director, was certainly a worthy recipient of one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” awards today.

The leading advocate for caregivers and domestic workers since she founded NDWA 16 years ago, Ms. Poo wrote last year in an essay for Oxfam America:

Ai-jen Poo. Photo: National Domestic Workers Alliance

“Domestic workers are just one population within the growing ranks of the working poor, workers who are slipping through the cracks of a deteriorating safety net and falling into the growing chasm of economic inequality in this country.”

Domestic workers—95 percent of whom are women—are paid wages that are at or near the poverty level. Their jobs are arduous, and we mostly take them for granted. Yet all of us depend on them at least at some point in our lives. And their ranks are growing, as the number of elderly Americans rises.

According to the US Department of Labor, the number of personal care aides will increase 70 percent between 2010 and 2020, making it the fastest-growing job in the country.

These are the people who care for us and our families in our most intimate, vulnerable, and, often, meaningful moments. They become woven into our homes and our families when we’re young, elderly, ill, or disabled. We trust them with our lives — and yet we hardly provide for their future.

Nearly one-fourth of all domestic workers and two-thirds of live-in workers earn less than the state minimum wage, and 70 percent are paid less than $13 per hour. The percentages who receive Social Security, other retirement benefits, or health insurance from their employers is in the single digits. Nearly one-third of caregivers for the elderly injure their backs and a similar proportion of housecleaners develop skin or breathing problems in any given year.

Ai-jen Poo is helping to expose these trends. According to one of NDWA’s pioneering studies, a sadly staggering 91 percent of domestic workers report physical or verbal abuse on the job. And most of these workers are not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act or other labor laws.

Poo, who is just 40, has organized thousands of workers and successfully advocated for passage of New York’s Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, requiring employers to provide overtime pay, one day off per week, three days of paid leave each year, and protection from discrimination. Similar bills have recently been passed in California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, and Ms. Poo is pushing for national legislation to protect domestic workers across the US.

Domestic workers are among the growing numbers of low-wage workers in the United States. One in four US workers is in a job that pays too little to make ends meet for themselves and their families as inequality has grown, the middle class has hollowed out, and worker protections have been weakened. Five years ago, the US proportion of low-wage work was the highest proportion in any wealthy country, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. What’s more, the US economic “recovery” has created far more low-wage jobs than better-paid ones, according to the National Employment Law Project.

This is not what America—a nation predicated on justice and opportunity—should be. There are many things that policy makers and employers could do so that hard-working Americans are not struggling to survive in bad jobs at bad pay.

One of these is to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, which would give a modest raise to more than 25 million workers; nine million of whom are the parents of 14 million children. As we push policy makers to take action to create a more economically fair society and for businesses to use some of their record $1.7 trillion in profits last year to raise their workers’ wage, we needed dedicated, tireless advocates and “geniuses” like Ai-jen Poo who are a voice for dignity and fairness for the millions of exploited domestic workers in our “land of opportunity.”

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