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A Policy of Caring

Ai-Jen Poo August 12, 2019

An excerpt from “The Age of Dignity: Preparing for the Elder Boom in a Changing America” by Ai-Jen Poo.

A healthy social life is found
When in the mirror of each human soul
The whole community is shaped,
And when in the community
Lives the strength of each human soul.
—Rudolf Steiner

Once upon a time, toward the end of the nineteenth century, as rail travel for the first time enabled regular land transport of people and goods over long distances, the U.S. government realized that railroads were a sink-or-swim proposition. There was no keeping up with the global pace of industry and development without them. So our government gave away more than 100 million acres in land grants—greater than the size of California—for the development of railroads. Congress authorized loans—between $10,000 and $50,000 per mile of railroad, depending on the difficulty of the terrain—to assist with construction. A little more than half a century later, President Eisenhower devoted the unheard-of sum of $25 billion to the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate highway system—at the time, the largest public works project in history.

And when in the 1880s electricity became an even more fundamental prerequisite to modern life than railroads, it was first the private utilities, like Thomas Edison’s, that began wiring and powering cities. But while New York, Chicago, and other cities enjoyed electric light and early laborsaving devices like sewing machines, rural America was in the dark. The only light after sundown came from smoky, dangerous lamps. Every chore still required backbreaking manual labor. These farms were too far from the generators and too widely dispersed to be profitable to urban power companies. And so much of the country remained in the dark for decades.

But at the end of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw the solution to this hardship as an opportunity to create jobs and stimulate manufacturing. On May 11, 1935, as part of the New Deal, he signed an executive order establishing the Rural Electrification Administration, which provided loans and other assistance so that rural cooperatives—groups of farmers—could build and run their own electrical distribution systems. Within two years the program brought electricity to some 1.5 million farms through 350 rural cooperatives in forty five states. Almost half of all farms were wired by 1942, with the remainder following by the 1950s.

And then there was the case of the Internet, pieces of which were originally developed by and for the Defense Department, as well as universities and other research institutions in the 1960s and 1970s. Over subsequent decades, government invested in the research and development as well as physical infrastructure for the technologies that would become today’s Internet, arguably as fundamental and significant a component of modern life and commerce as electricity.

Over and over again, at key turning points, we have invested in the infrastructure needed to thrive as a nation and to lead the safe, productive, and fulfilling lives that as individual Americans we expect to live. And over and over again, these big ideas, and the momentum behind them, not only transformed our lives but also transformed our economy. In fact, in many cases, these investments were our economy, and most certainly saved our economy.

An infrastructure for care may seem different from an infrastructure for railroads, highways, electricity, or the Internet. There are no trees to clear or wires to lay. Yet care is among the fundamental building blocks of society. For any of us, thinking of our most basic needs—care always comes first. There’s no need for the Internet, or even electricity, if there’s no way to feed, bathe, or clothe yourself.

Since care is a need that’s shared across American families, it should be a responsibility that’s shared by all of us as a nation. We brought water, electricity, and the Internet to every home. We can bring quality care to every home. But the Care Grid is a system we ’re going to have to invest in and create together. When we build the infrastructure we need to support human life, so much energy will be released in positive, transformative ways in our families, community, and economy. Rather than each of us struggling through in lonely isolation, we will have a shared base of support and structure on which to build our individual lives. As the elder boom arrives, we must take up the building of a Care Grid. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

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Ai-Jen Poo

Ai-jen Poo is the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Co-Director of Caring Across Generations, and Co-Founder of Supermajority. She is an award-winning organizer, thought leader, and social innovator, and a leading voice in future of work and family care solutions.

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