By Juliette Terzieff
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Carrie Giver is the legislative superhero of a new comic book. If this wonder woman has her way, Social Security and federal and state tax codes will be revamped to provide relief to 70 million people who look after children, parents and friends.
(WOMENSENEWS)--To the casual observer she looks like any other Washington bureaucrat going about her daily business. But like most caregivers there is more to Carrie Miller than meets the eye.
Through her gifts of extra-sensory perception and astral projection Carrie Miller hears and sees the cries for help of those she calls "the unsung heroes," the millions of unpaid U.S. caregivers.
When Carrie Miller transforms herself into Carrie Giver, she exchanges her conservative business suits for a magenta cape and matching body suit and rushes to the rescue of the overworked, abused and exhausted. She pulls a young boy from the path of moving bus after he's slipped the grip of a mother juggling another child and shopping bags. She stops an elderly man's runaway wheelchair from careening into oncoming traffic after his wife slips. She pulls a mother and her children from a home made dangerous by an abusive husband.
"Unpaid labor is everywhere, every bit as essential to society as work that earns a pay check. Why isn't it obvious?" Carrie ponders in the opening pages of the inaugural edition of "The Adventures of Carrie Giver: The Cost of Giving," a comic book series that debuted in February.
"Mothers and other caregivers are working," Carrie later tells a congressional hearing as part of her day job as director of the Women's Division at the Department of Labor. "Society must acknowledge the value of unpaid caregivers and give back just a smidgeon of what we currently take from them."
The Carrie Giver series has no regular publication schedule. Carrie's next and second set of adventures is slated for release this winter.
Shortly after Congress reconvenes following their summer break, a TR Rose Associates staff member will don the disguise of Carrie Giver and swoop into Washington, D.C. Dressed in the heroine's suit, mask and cape, she will visit congressional offices and hand-deliver copies of the comic book and start discussions about caregiving policy with individual lawmakers.
Carrie's creators, TR Rose Associates, a New York public policy organization that specializes in social and political issues, hope she will champion the Caregiver Credit Campaign.
The campaign--a national movement started two years ago and supported by the New York-based Ms. Foundation for Women and the Open Society Institute, among others--is lobbying to expand federal and state tax credits for dependent children. Campaign organizers want to expand those credits to include other dependents such as older parents and adult children, to raise the size of credits to better match the true costs of giving care and to make the credits refundable so that those who do not owe taxes receive a check.
An estimated 70 million Americans are caregivers. They look after their children, their aging parents, ailing friends. The National Alliance for Caregiving in Bethesda, Md., and the Washington-based American Association of Retired Persons estimate that at-home care that adults provide other adults saves $257 million that otherwise would be paid by local, state and federal health care programs.
Caregiving entails unrecognized financial, emotional and physical costs that tax credits should address, says Theresa Funiciello, executive director of TR Rose Associates and the creator of the Carrie Giver character. "We wanted a way to capture peoples' imagination, as this is an issue many people are in the middle or afraid of, but that fails to get the kind of attention other issues like domestic violence get," says Funiciello.
Twenty-one percent of U.S. households--with a median income of $37,312--include an adult who is caring for another adult, according to a 2004 study by the National Alliance for Caregiving.
While males make up almost 40 percent of caregivers, and care can range from a few hours a week to round-the-clock, the study found the typical caregiver to be a 46-year-old female providing 20 or more hours of care per week to her mother.
Over 65 percent of respondents reported emotional stress and the need for help with things like balancing life demands, making end-of-life decisions and getting information related to their efforts. Every respondent reported that caregiving affected their professional careers.
Most women, caregiver advocates point out, will spend 17 years caring for children and a further 18 years helping their elderly parents while coping with other daily demands.
The Washington-based National Governors Association says caregivers typically spend $12,500 a year on related expenses. For those providing long-term intensive care for extended periods of time, the costs can amount to over $600,000 in lost wages, pensions, employer-matched retirement plans and Social Security benefits.
"There is definitely an economic value to caregiving clearly visible to those doing it but the value of that contribution is not officially recognized in any tangible way," says Jill Miller, chief executive officer of Women Work!, a Washington-based advocacy organization. "Plainly put, we as a society continue to undervalue the care women provide."
Currently federal law provides a $3,000 tax credit per child but makes no provisions for adult-on-adult care. Twenty-six states provide some kind of tax break for adult caregiving, either a tax credit of between $500 and $1,500 or a tax deduction for expenses up to $2,400 for adult caregiving. Tax credits provide a refund on expenses while deductions lower the amount of income that gets taxed.
Two related bills are currently being considered by the Senate. One allots a $3,000 tax credit to adult-on-adult caregivers; the other provides the same amount to married spouses caring for children.
"Neither goes anywhere near far enough to adequately compensate for the wages a caregiver gives up to stay home," says Miller, who espouses adjusting Social Security benefits to count caregiving hours as work credits, increasing paid parental leave and providing more job training for those seeking to re-enter the work force.
But Miller and others don't have high hopes that the Senate bills will make it into law. "In the current budget climate, there is little money for these kinds of domestic programs because of the costs of war and other current expenditures."
Carrie Giver will keep fighting until Congress agrees to make a change.
"Caregivers who are willing to give direct care ought to be able to, without going broke," Carrie believes. "Caregiving is not a luxury society can do without."
Juliette Terzieff is a freelance journalist in Buffalo, N.Y., who has worked for the San Francisco Chronicle, Newsweek, CNN International and the London Sunday Times during time spent in the Balkans, the Middle East and South Asia.
Carrie Giver, TR Rose Associates
National Alliance for Caregiving: "Caregiving in the United States"
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