Economy

One Small Fix To Help People Who Leave Their Jobs To Care For Loved Ones

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jessica Hill

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) with his wife and son

When Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) went home for the winter holidays, he met with a number of people who sacrificed careers to care for family members. And many of them kept bringing up the same worries.

“I heard these heartbreaking stories of people who were fearful of losing everything that they had saved because they had to leave a job in order to come home and take care of a loved one,” he said. Time out of the workforce caring for an elderly parent or a young child means lost income.

It also means reduced Social Security benefits once the caregiver gets to retirement age, since she won’t be paying those taxes if she’s not earning income while she’s taking a break from her job. “One of the realities is that your retirement takes a big hit if you leave the workforce and come home to care for a child or parent,” he said.

So on Friday, he’s introducing a bill to help make that financial picture a bit less troubling. The Social Security Caregiver Credit Act would add a credit to a caregivers’ lifetime earnings to determine how much she should get in Social Security benefits. The credit would be based on a sliding income scale related to previous earnings capped at the average national wage or a maximum credit equal to half the average national income for those who weren’t earning money previously, for up to five years of caregiving. And it would apply to anyone caring for a child, grandchild, niece or nephew, aunt or uncle, spouse or domestic partner, parent, or sibling who needs daily assistance with basic activities like eating and bathing or even managing finances and shopping for food.

And while full-time caregivers will be covered, those who provide part-time care — 80 hours or more a month — can also get coverage. “Our bill acknowledges that this isn’t just about the handful of individuals who are full-time caregivers,” Murphy said.

The hope is that the credits would help ease the burden on people who are deciding whether to provide care for their family members themselves or, in many cases, put a sick or elderly relative in assisted living or a nursing home. Keeping people in their homes comes with its own savings for the government.

“Nursing home care is the most expensive type of care,” Murphy said, and it’s often paid for by Medicaid at a cost to the government. “Every effort we can make to promote people being cared for in the home is an enormous savings.”

It would also help women, who thanks to the fact that they are much more likely to leave work for caregiving, as well as the gender wage gap, get far less in Social Security benefits when they retire, part of why they are so much more likely to live in poverty when they enter old age.

He also hopes the credits start to make some more philosophical changes in the country. “The caregivers in Connecticut, the parents in Connecticut that I talked to, they know what they’re doing is work, just like people who show up at the office every day,” he said. But as policy currently stands, that unpaid work, done in the home, is not counted the same way as work done for pay outside the home.

“We are long overdue for a paradigm shift in terms of how America thinks of work,” he said. “This bill would acknowledge that taking care of a child or a parent is work too.”

The bill has already found a Senate sponsor in Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and the House version, which is slightly different, has 54 cosponsors. Yet most Republicans in Congress have voiced concerns over Social Security’s finances — although it is solvent for at least two decades and fixing any issues after that requires relatively small tweaks — and appear ready to cut, not expand, benefits. Murphy hopes his bill starts to reverse that trend as well.

“We have to shift the conversation from shifting down Social Security to expanding Social Security,” he said. “My hope is that this proposal is another brick in a growing wall of resistance to calls to strip down the size and scope of Social Security benefits.”