November 2011, Shawn Fremstad

America’s more than three million direct care workers (DCWs)—a category that includes nursing assistants, home health aides, and personal and home care aides—play a crucial role in maintaining the health and economic security of elderly retirees and people with disabilities. Yet, they are among the most poorly compensated and economically insecure workers in the United States.

Only about one in every four direct care workers have employer-provided retirement benefits. When these workers themselves retire or become disabled, many of them will rely almost exclusively on modest Social Security benefits to keep a roof over their heads and meet other basic living expenses.

Some recent proposals to cut Social Security would put the retirement security of direct care workers—and millions of other workers in poorly compensated jobs—at risk. Instead of cutting Social Security benefits, the federal government should strengthen Social Security in ways that increase retirement security, particularly for retirees who have worked in poorly compensated jobs and typically have little or no retirement savings outside of Social Security.

This brief provides direct care workers and their allies with information they can use to become engaged in efforts to maintain and strengthen Social Security. After providing background on how Social Security works and why today’s direct care workers can count on it being there for them when they retire, it details some troubling recent proposals that would cut Social Security benefits. The final section way to improve Social Security and increase the retirement security of direct care workers.

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This paper was published as part of a joint project of CEPR and the Direct Care Alliance on the retirement security of poorly compensated workers. The Direct Care Alliance is the national advocacy voice of direct care workers. DCA empowers workers to speak out for better wages, benefits, respect, and working conditions, so more people can commit to direct care as a career,  and convenes allies nationwide to build consensus for change. For more about DCA, see their website.