Twenty-Six years ago, this week, United States Senator John Heinz was tragically killed – a grievous loss not only for his family but also for our country. While his family suffered immeasurably, the nation lost one Republican Member of Congress who clearly understood and cared about the needs of working families. In Washington DC, across Pennsylvania and throughout America, he championed the importance of helping families in need, particularly those with disabled children and aging adult parents and grandparents.
Few of America’s political leaders understood as clearly as John Heinz that the fabric of the nation would be strengthened if working men and women had the resources to care for their families, regardless of size, gender, race or ethnicity.
He believed that given the tremendous financial and emotional strains of caring for loved ones, the federal government had a specific role to help protect them from famine, financial despair and having to choose between buying their medications or their dinner. In many ways, John Heinz was a renaissance man whose work transcended political ideologies and recognized the needs of the nation, old and young.
Today, 26 years later, Congress is mired in an indifference to working families. With increasing numbers of women leaving the work force to care for a disabled child or aging parent and Congress continuing to sit on the sidelines watching this, informal caregiving is on the rise- at a hefty cost to working class families.
Families with a disabled child or aging parent that qualifies for Medicaid they receive help – and that is important. But the needs of middle class families continue to grow, and Congress is failing to address their concerns – inaction that Senator Heinz would find unacceptable for both political parties.
While campaigning for President, then candidate Donald Trump proposed a child care plan that would allow working families to deduct the costs of child care from their federal taxes. This plan should be front and center when the White House and Capitol Hill undertake tax reform.
The Trump proposal acknowledges that helping families care for children is very important, that we have reached a critical point in this nation’s history where we are being forced to balance the needs of children against the growing needs of senior citizens and the families that care for them.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the value of family and other informal caregiving services is was over $200 billion, But, when women take time off from work, they accumulate lots of zero’s. They contribute $0 to Social Security, costing them an estimated $64,000 in benefits. They get $0 wages and pension contributions, an estimated loss of $130,000. The accumulate zero vacation time and zero credit from their employers for caring for the family. And, in the end, women live longer than men having left the workplace to serve as a caregiver penalizes them further.
To reform the nation’s tax system is important. But cutting taxes alone does not help family caregivers. If Senator Heinz could be a part of coming debate on tax reform, I believe he would insist that we recognize the value and importance of these people – mostly women – and honor their work. We could do so by taking two important steps: giving them partial Social Security credits as they serve as caregiver, and by expanding the Medicare Home Health program with coverage for respite care.
Senator Heinz referred to these women (and men) as part of the nation’s “shadow” caregivers, “those who too often are the unrecognized but critical bastions of support for millions of Americans with a chronic disorder.”
That was Senator Heinz – a Republican with a heart who understood the needs of the average person, the person he fought for every day of his public service. His voice is sorely missed in Pennsylvania, Congress and across
Jeffrey Lewis was the Republican Staff Director for the Senator. He now serves as the president and CEO of Legacy Health Endowment in California. The views expressed are his own.