Award-winning activist delivers lecture about importance of caretakers in American economy

Emily O’Toole

Ai-jen Poo, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012, gave a lecture on the power of immigrant caretakers in a lecture Thursday afternoon. 

In her lecture, “Immigration & The Future of American Families,” Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, compared the life of her grandmother, who is still alive thanks to female caretakers from China, to that of her grandfather, who passed away after three months of living in a nursing home with poor conditions.

“He was alive to tell me he was afraid. What’s become clear to me … is that we as a country don’t have a plan,” Poo said. “My story is part of a much larger story of what’s happening in this country.”

Along with families not being able to afford sufficient care, caretakers themselves are not making enough income, Poo said.

“At a time when we need more care, we actually have less of it … our care work force is working hard, and earning poverty wages (of $13,000 a year),” Poo said. “Those working in the field of care don’t earn enough to care for themselves.”

Poo said this sector of the economy relates to female immigrant rights as they make up a large portion of caretakers. 

“Forty percent of our direct care workforce is immigrant,” Poo said. “Their work is essentially the work of upholding the dignity of the people who cared for us.”

Ashley Salinas, government and humanities sophomore, said she thinks there should be more attention on caretaking as a legitimate part of the economy.

“Nowadays we are kind of forcing people either to go to work or take care of (their) child,” Salinas said. “If we were a more caring society, our economy would be a lot better, that’s for sure. A lot of people can’t work because of family obligations.” 

Poo’s plan to address America’s need for caretakers includes developing “Universal Family Care,” a social program that provides funding to American adults to afford paid family leave and care for their children and elders.

“It’s times like these when we need big, bold solutions,” Poo said. “The risks of not doing it are incredibly great … we can’t afford not to.”

Raj Patel, research professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said caretakers in our society are undervalued in his opening remarks for Poo.

“The modern economy wouldn’t be possible without care,” Patel said. “Care really is going to save us all.”