Why We Need to Bring Attention to the Sandwich Generation

Vice President Kamala Harris is working to help the sandwich generation—aka families raising kids while also taking care of their parents.

Courtesy of Angie Klaus photography
Jamie Smith and her kids. Photo: Courtesy of Angie Klaus photography

On Tuesday, Vice President Kamala Harris will meet with Jamie Smith, a mom of four children under 15 in Washington D.C. With one child with disabilities and two parents with recent health issues, Smith finds herself "sandwiched," caring for both her children and her parents while juggling her career. As millions of families struggle with the same experiences as Smith, the Vice President is trying to learn how the administration can meet people where they are with policies that matter to families.

So, what is this sandwich generation? It's comprised of millions of adults—71 percent of them between ages 40 to 59—who find themselves responsible for taking care of both their kids and their aging parents. As the larger baby boomer generation gets older, the sandwich generation has been forced to spread themselves thin in order to take on balancing their careers, raising their children, and caring for their aging relatives. Not to mention that their children now often require more financial assistance later in life. And as many millennial and Gen X parents have experienced, the sandwich generation has enormous financial stress, unlike previous generations.

The COVID-19 pandemic threw even more families into this situation, with kids and parents moving in together when schools and daycares closed, and the retired boomers became the child care. Throughout the course of the pandemic, nearly 3 million women left the workforce. With no federal supports, many had to choose between caring for their families and continuing their careers.

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Smith shared a similar experience with her daughter Claire. "My oldest, was born 15 years ago with very complex medical needs and I had to leave the workforce because appropriate or affordable care wasn't available, and then shortly after that my parents had health problems as well," says Smith. "The debt was accumulating at a scary pace, even with two good-paying jobs. We saw no other option than for me to leave the workforce."

Before President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris were elected, they spoke about how they planned to make their administration a game-changer for parents like Smith. Now, they have proposed the Build Back Better agenda, which aims to reduce burdens on millions of parents and women, and is close to becoming a reality if Congress passes it.

And that agenda can help address long-standing issues plaguing American families. Last week, Vice President Harris and Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen announced a detailed report that shows that the current child care system places an unmanageable burden on families. In a new report, the New American Foundation found that by 2060, 94.7 million Americans will be 65 or older, as those who have the ability to care for the aging steadily shrinks.

Tara Dawson McGuinness from the New American Foundation noted it's critical that "policy sees the whole family rather than just work on a specific topic or issue area—health policy, housing, tax policy—but from our vantage point, it is often the same families who are child tax credit eligible and need low-cost health care and help with pre-K. The reconciliation bill is a recognition that if we want to really move the needle on improving the lives of families, we need to make improvements in more than one area, improving wages for the millions of workers who care for our families, investing in early education through universal pre-K, paid leave, and the child tax credit."

As a child whose family was fortunate to have access to child care, the Vice President recognizes how support helped her mother achieve success, and in turn open doors for herself.

"My mother went to work long hours in the lab. And when she did, my sister and I would walk two doors down—just a couple of feet—to the home of Mrs. Regina Shelton," Vice President Harris said during a recent speech. "My mother often said that but for Mrs. Shelton, she would not have been able to do the work that she did. She would not have been able to make the contributions that she made in the fight to end breast cancer. She would not have been able to fulfill her ambitions for herself and her two daughters."

Under the Build Back Better agenda, the sandwich generation would receive assistance on both ends. For parents of young children, the plan expands the child tax credits, makes an investment in child care and universal pre-K, and provides 12 weeks of paid leave. On the other end of the spectrum, those caring for aging adults will also benefit from paid leave for elder care, they will see an investment to increase resources for home and community-based services, and reduced prices of prescription drugs under Medicare.

Emily Tisch Sussman is the host of the all-women's podcast Your Political Playlist and Senior Advisor to Paid Leave U.S.

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