“Investing in care workers is like investing in infrastructure”: An Interview with Ai-jen Poo

Photo courtesy of NDWA

As cofounder and executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), Ai-jen Poo works for respect, dignity, and protections for domestic workers, including nannies, house cleaners, and care workers, most of whom are immigrants and women of color.

We talk with Poo about how NDWA leverages technology to increase impact, how aging baby boomers create opportunities to improve job quality for domestic workers, and why we should remain optimistic about achieving positive change during challenging times.

How does the NDWA determine which programs and policies to pursue?

Our work is informed by conversations with workers themselves. Everything that we do for workers is in consultation with our members, with the workers we talk to online and offline, and with our affiliates doing grassroots organizing in local communities every day.

What does success look like for the NDWA?

Everything we do is measured through our ability to improve quality of life for the women we represent.

We look at whether we are concretely improving the lives of domestic workers, whether through connecting them within their community, helping to elevate their voice and sense of their own power and agency, or actually helping to raise wages, improve standards, and improve the quality of care jobs. We also look at our ability to change the systems and policies that shape conditions such as bills at the state and municipal level.

How has technology changed your approach?

Technology has enabled us to reach scale in a disaggregated, highly fragmented labor market.

Honestly, you could go into any neighborhood and there’s no indication which homes are also where people are working. Care workers have been isolated, hidden behind closed doors, and profoundly disaggregated so much that enforcing existing laws is a real challenge.

Technology has allowed us to aggregate workers and, once aggregated, think creatively about how we can change norms and behaviors—change an entire culture, really—in this industry.

Can you provide a specific example of how you are using technology to change that culture?

In 2015, NDWA created Alia, the world’s first portable benefits platform for domestic workers, in response to the fact that this workforce has never had access to a safety net and we really have no culture of providing benefits for this workforce.

Alia is based online and offers a benefits product that is very easy to use. We are trying to establish a practice of benefits provision in an industry where most people don’t even see themselves as employers, much less as employers with an obligation to provide benefits.

Everything we do aims to establish new norms in an industry where the workers have been invisible and most relationships have been highly informal.

When you look to the future, where do you see the greatest opportunities to increase the impact of the NDWA?

We are facing a huge moment of opportunity right now. Pressures on working families are changing as a result of demographic shifts. Baby boomers are aging into retirement at rate of 10,000 a day and people are living longer than ever before, so there’s a huge and growing older population in need of care and support.

At the same time, there’s a cultural shift away from institution-based care towards home-based care. Ninety percent of Americans actually want to age at home.

Taken together, there’s a huge opportunity to grow the workforce in a way that is sustainable, and to invest in these jobs as quality jobs that workers can take pride in, a chance to transform these poverty-wage jobs into really good jobs that create new pathways to economic opportunity, and really, to the American Dream, for millions of workers.

The other place I see opportunity is in the changing nature of work. A lot of jobs that used to create pathways to economic opportunity are now at risk of displacement, either through outsourcing or automation.

While we don’t know a lot about what the future holds for workers, we do know that care jobs are here to stay and, for foreseeable future, we will need humans to take care of our kids and our parents and grandparents. So there, too, is an opportunity right in front of us to make sure that these are good jobs.

And the payoff is enormous. It would mean a whole new class of good jobs and a huge return for the economy. This is a workforce that provides the stability and support needed for so many other working people to do their jobs.

Where do you see the greatest threats to seizing those opportunities?

The greatest threat is that we, as a nation, keep operating from an incremental and technocratic approach and fail to see the opportunity to transform a system that’s really needed transformation for a long time.

Investing in care workers is like investing in infrastructure. If we fail to invest in care workers as infrastructure, any improvements will be piecemeal and very costly to individual families who cannot bear the burden. The risk is that we, as a country, don’t see this as an urgent social issue in need of a collective solution, a public policy solution, but consider it an individual family’s burden.

Transforming this system is going to require a large investment and it’s been hard in this climate  of austerity and scarcity around policymaking, but it’s one of the most important investments we could make.

What data would help you move your work forward?

There’s a need for more data on the care needs of families and how the cost of care is changing now that people are living longer.

The truth is that there is a lot we don’t know about the care economy and the true cost of care. So much care happens informally, and, at least in the private pay market, many jobs are under the table and it’s a cash economy. As a result, there are a lot of ways time and costs and contributions aren’t accurately measured and certainly not accurately valued.

How do you remain optimistic about your ability to effect change during our current political climate of “austerity and scarcity”?

Obviously, we are living in time when our country is very divided. However, every single one of us has somebody in our lives who needs care. This experience is unifying and this is a unifying solution.

Investing in the ability of working people to take care of their families is something that can bring us together while addressing a lot of the pain points facing so many working families.