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Is Money the Only Way to Value Care Work?
Why is our language of respect so limited?
One article that has stuck with me for a long time is Helen Andrews’s “Bloodless Moralism” in First Things. She talks about how skittish politicians and reporters are about making clear moral claims, preferring to bolster their arguments by citing social science and economic projections. She mentioned one particularly egregious example:
In reviewing the two parties’ platforms ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections here in Australia, I came across this startling sentence in a platform brochure about mental health policy: “The financial cost to Australia of mental illness in young people aged 12 to 25 was $10.6 billion in 2009, approximately 70 percent of which is productivity lost due to lower employment, absenteeism, and premature death.” There are only two things to be said about that $10.6 billion figure: as an attempt at numerical accuracy, it is useless; as an attempt to demonstrate that youth mental illness is a bad thing, it is superfluous.
There’s a real poverty of expression that leads us to discuss the toll of suicide in terms of lost productivity and GDP. And I feel like I see some of that same stiltedness in discussions of how we value care work, which is done primarily by, though not exclusively by, women.
I see this pattern in the calls for government-funded universal childcare, which is a fit for some parents’ needs and goals, but not all. As long as we are paying someone else to take care of our children (or our parents), the value of the work is legible in economic terms.
That leaves family members who provide care asking, “Why does carework have value when someone else does it for my child and not when I do it?”
Care for the elderly often specifically excludes relatives from being compensated for the care they provide. AARP notes that many Medicaid programs, if they provide financial support at all, “exclude spouses and legal guardians. Others will pay care providers only if they do not live in the same house as the care recipient.”
One alternative is the Wages for Housework movement, which aimed to see women paid for their work. In an essay for Jacobin, Natalie Shure argued that a key, unachieved aim of second wave feminism was to force the work of homemaking to be valued in the same economic terms as work outside the home:
In a society that forces people to work for money, and give birth and sustain families and communities for free, with minimal institutional support, it will always be far more lucrative to be a man.
I can’t deny the above, but, with Andrews’s essay in mind, I find something unsettling about winning respect for care work only through fitting it into the economic mould of wage work.
A parental stipend, UBI, or program like the People’s Policy Project Family Fun Pack all make more sense to me if the money isn’t framed as earned wages for work, but as support we as a society give parents and caretakers in gratitude. Parents and other family caregivers are part of what sustain our social fabric (like a library or a park).
I’m reluctant to value love in economic terms, even as some financial support is needed. I don’t read to my daughter in order to boost her earning potential, and people don’t greet her on her walks thinking of her future contributions to the Social Security funds to sustain them in retirement.
Have you seen better ways to call for societal reforms that value care for the vulnerable, which don’t rely on these economic justifications? Do you think it’s worth asking for respect (for now) in whatever language is available, even if it’s flawed?
I’ll share highlights from your discussion in next Thursday’s email, so please add your comments below or email me. And remember to send in any job postings, organizing opportunities, or recommended readings for this week’s Classifieds post.