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Ai-jen Poo

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Paying Off Our Real Debt

Posted: 08/09/11 04:18 PM ET

Kimi Lee's mother did everything right. She saved all her life, had two health insurance policies, was a member of a union. Then, during a trip to see her newborn granddaughter, she suffered a stroke. Her family did their best to cope: Kimi and her family moved to Los Angeles to help care for her. But bills and long-term care costs still threatened to rob the family of what Kimi's mom had worked her whole life for, including her house.

"For us it was definitely a shock," Kimi said. "When there are these long-term situations that happen to people, there's just no safety net for that."

Henry Perry considers himself lucky. He is 96 years old, and is able to live an active, dignified life thanks to the care of Dabphne Hughes, a longtime friend from his church who came to care work after she lost her previous job. Henry can afford to pay for long-term care, but sees that many in the African American community he lives in cannot. While younger people in the community used to be able to care for their elders, job and health struggles often leave them unable to -- and older people are left to struggle at the time they care the most.

"It says a lot about the American Dream," Henry said, "that you work all your life, pay your taxes and all that sort of thing. Then you get to your Golden Years and find out they're not as golden as they're supposed to be."

Marlene Champion came to domestic care work after decades of work at a poultry processing plant. For six and a half years, she cared for an older man who at first was home-bound and did little but watch television.

"Over the years, I coaxed him out of his shell. He began to go to birthdays and weddings and bar mitzvahs -- he became a different man," Marlene said. "I learned a lot from him in those years about the struggle for dignity and respect. Someday, I hope someone will care for me that way."

These are the voices of America's Care Crisis. The relationship between care providers and care recipients is full of love, intimacy, and interdependence. And yet millions of older Americans and people with disabilities struggle to live with dignity because they don't have the quality care they need. Their families struggle to provide for them.

Meanwhile, caregivers suffer burn-out from poor working conditions, low wages, lack of training, and benefits. And the many immigrant care workers who are currently caring for our loved ones are locked outs of the American Dream, without a path to citizenship.

The crisis is growing by the day. Every eight seconds, another American turns 65. By 2050, there will be 27 million Americans with long-term care needs -- more than twice the number in 2000.

These older Americans are the deepest source of wisdom, values, and character we have as a nation. We owe them a debt of gratitude more profound than any other. And we have a responsibility to care for them as they spent their lives caring for us.

That's why on July 12, nearly 800 community, faith, and labor leaders gathered in Washington, DC, to launch Caring Across Generations, a national movement to solve America's Care Crisis. Caring Across Generations aims to preserve what we have -- the vital safety net of Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security -- while creating what we need: two million new care jobs, training and protection for workers, new paths to citizenship for immigrant workers, and measures to make care more affordable for struggling families.

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett was with us at the event, a day-long town hall-style event we called a Care Congress. "Our economy will depend on the creation of millions of home care jobs. You are the economic engine of our country," Jarrett said. "It is up to us to ensure that these jobs come with the right benefits, what all Americans deserve: good working conditions, clear labor standards, and the ability to form a union."

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis was with us as well. "Thanks to your work -- workers and families coming together -- we're standing up today for a rightful place in society," she said. "That's what this is about: dignity and respect."

The July 12 Care Congress was just the beginning. Over the next 12 months, Caring Across Generations will hold Care Congresses in at least 15 U.S. cities. These events will bring together tens of thousands of Americans who are touched by the "care crisis," particularly older adults, people with disabilities, care workers and their families. Together, we will transform public policy so that we can be a nation that takes care of one another, across generations.

It won't be easy -- especially in a political moment where short-sighted and destructive budget cuts are the order of the day. But the Caring Across Generations campaign is built on love: the love of Kimi and her mother, of Dabphne and Henry, of Marlene and the man she cared for. Whatever the obstacles, love is still the most powerful force for change in the world.