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Noah Zatz –
Big ideas are flourishing these days—the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, sectoral bargaining, Universal Basic Income, prison abolition. This makes it all the more noteworthy when major policy areas are relatively quiet. One example is child care, despite Elizabeth Warren having started there in her “I have a plan for that” strategy.
What’s lacking is not merely depth of attention but also breadth of imagination. In particular, child care is being viewed almost entirely through the lens of labor market policy. Policy initiatives such as Warren’s focus first on enabling parents to flourish in paid work through access to affordable, quality care. Secondarily, they strive to ensure that the resulting caregiving jobs are themselves well-paid, protected, and respected. These important commitments especially advance the interests of women workers, particularly working class women of color overrepresented on both sides of this needing care/providing care ledger. The dual emphasis undermines both the family wage system’s gendered breadwinner/caretaker division of labor centered on married, middle-class white women and its incorporation of women of color into paid work, including specifically domestic work for white families, that lay outside the structures of labor citizenship designed for white, male breadwinners.
Nonetheless, focusing on universalizing access to better paid work submerges two other longstanding elements of critical feminist analysis of care work. These are particularly pertinent to LPE conversations about the political-economic centrality of markets. First, feminist accounts of social reproduction have long highlighted the extensive, essential, but systematically devalued or outright ignored work performed outside conventional labor markets in families and communities. This includes especially direct care work and housework or other household production, but also broader forms of civic participation often denoted “volunteering.” Second, attaching economic resources to nonmarket social reproductive labor starts to loosen paid work’s iron grip on household income more generally. That grip creates a legitimated dependency on labor markets that undergirds power relations both between labor and capital and, within families, between market “breadwinners” and those more conventionally labelled “dependents.” Valuing care thus could facilitate both reimagining work and decentering markets.