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Adventures in Lobbying

Comic Books Help Put Caregiver Issues in the Spotlight

There’s a superhero working at the Department of Labor.

OK, OK. In real life, there (probably) isn’t a superhero working at the Department of Labor. But in the minds of the folks at Social Agenda, Carrie Giver is alive and well, rescuing children and the elderly from danger while furthering the cause of compensating women who care for those same people she rescues.

“The Adventures of Carrie Giver” tells the story of the titular character, an ESP-equipped superhero who doubles as director of the women’s division of the Department of Labor. It’s penned by Diane Pagen, project director of Social Agenda’s Caregiver Credit Campaign, and executive director Theresa Funiciello.

The idea of creating a comic book was more about grabbing the attention of their target audience, according to Pagen. However, the comic book is rife with dialogue that helps the reader understand the basis of what Social Agenda is striving for: expansion of the child tax credit to include care for the elderly, thus transforming it into a caregiver credit.

“We feel the idea that everybody has to be in the wage market at any given moment, you can’t really reconcile that with also having a society that’s human-centered, where people get what they need,” Pagen said. “There seems to be people from both sides of the political spectrum saying that old people are important and children are important, but everybody wants somebody else to take care of them so they can get paid jobs. It doesn’t seem like that’s the foundation for a productive society.”

To solidify the comic book’s legitimacy, Social Agenda got Neal Adams — he of X-Men, Green Arrow and the late-1960s Batman redesign fame — to sign on to do the cover art.

“They basically told me: ‘Hey, for the very reason you don’t know about this, it’s important to get people to know about this and use a popular medium,’” Adams said. “I think their reasoning was very grounded, and I was delighted to help out.”

This isn’t Adams’ first venture into the world of political causes. The 65-year-old artist also has done storyboards for commercials for the Red Cross and a brochure about menstruation for young girls with Down’s syndrome, among others.

Nor is it the first eye-catching campaign conducted by Social Agenda. In May 2001, Funiciello drove around the country in a New York City taxi cab to drum up support for making the child tax credit refundable, an effort described by Pagen as “mostly successful.”

While Adams worked on the cover of “Carrie Giver” and some of the inside art, Pagen and Funiciello took charge of the writing half of the book. “This was the first time I’ve actually done a comic book to comic-book standards,” Pagen said.

The final product was shipped to every Senator and Representative’s office on Capitol Hill two weeks ago — a form of lobbying as unique as the idea to do the comic book in the first place.

“The fact of the matter is, you wouldn’t leave your 4-year-old unattended on a street corner, and you can’t do it with an older person either, because they are vulnerable and need care and need your vigilance,” Pagen said. “So it’s work to mind them. Even if you love them, you’re still doing work.”

It’s that part of the equation that has so many people ducking the responsibility in favor of a paid job while handing off the duty to a third party. For those who try to do both, the costs are so exorbitant as to make working a paid job the only means by which to afford taking care of another person. A recent article in The New York Times highlighted several individuals who have had to empty their savings accounts or borrow against their 401(k) plans to care for a family member.

“Basically, the economy and society seem to be on a trend toward relegating all care — whether it be care of children or care of adults — to the back burner and are prioritizing waged work,” Pagen said. “But the fact of the matter is especially with the baby boomers aging, there is tons of work done in this country every day that is not paid.”

Pagen is also quick to point out that the majority of that work is done by women, an issue that Adams also notes.

Adams believes the problem stems from the long-standing American stereotype of women being the housewife-caretaker, while the men are the family breadwinners. It’s a dynamic that’s raised several times in the comic book, too.

“I think women are still willing to do those things around the house because they recognize the importance of it,” Adams said. “But now, this generation, they recognize the value of it.”

That value carries a hefty price tag. According to a 2006 study led by Peter Arno of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, $306 billion is spent annually by caregivers taking care of adults. And indirectly, these informal caregivers are responsible for keeping the already skyrocketing cost of health care in America from reaching epic proportions, by keeping these adults from being taken care of by the states and requiring additional funding.

“Informal caregivers are what’s keeping the health care system from being more expensive than it already is,” Pagen said. “So why not give back a smidgen of money to these people so that they don’t have to go hungry or have financial hardship?”

But despite its political aspirations, this comic book is no different than any other.

“The important thing is the cover; it has a certain amount of impact,” Adams said. “And that’s part of what drew me in to this, the recognition that more people would pay attention to this.”

And in true comic-book fashion, Carrie Giver’s story will be continued in a second issue, which Pagen said the group is currently working on. Though there is no word on the plot, Pagen said they already have had several calls from Congressional offices about the Caregiver Credit Campaign’s agenda.

“We think it is a testament to the fact that the new Congress wants to do something domestically to make things better and are looking for what to do,” Pagen said. “And I think we have it.”