On March 30 I published a piece titled A Feminist Stimulus. Even in its earlier stages the pandemic provided stark proof of the essential nature of care work. I imagined that this would be evident to increasing numbers of working people, families, and in turn, policy wonks. But the policy responses to the obvious looming crisis in care in virtually every country have been disappointing- until now. Fortunately former Vice President and presidential candidate Joe Biden has embraced the need to invest in the care economy. It’s a good plan and deserves praise. It also needs to be pushed further. Other governments should also consider taking note.
This piece will not repeat the arguments I made in A Feminist Stimulus. I will simply point out that since that piece appeared in March, the crisis has become even more evident, underscoring my point that the care economy needs more workers. Thanks to widespread failures in governance, COVID-19 is on the verge of becoming uncontrollable in major emerging and submerging economies like Mexico, Brazil and the United States. This in turn is creating enormous pressures on the economy and on health, education and welfare systems.
There are three looming reasons we need to adopt a care income now more than ever. First, there will be a clear increase in ‘work from home’ (WFH) over the medium term, coupled with uncertain school and child care situations. This will inevitably increase the care burden on working parents. Second, there will be long term health consequences to this crisis and a rise in the number of chronically ill. Deteriorating health infrastructure means that the burden on family members to care for vulnerable loved ones will increase. And we haven’t even begun to factor in the new care needs that will arise from long term mental health impacts of the crisis. Third, there is already an increase in the care needs of the elderly population. The crisis has created greater barriers to self-sufficiency and increased reliance on services for the elderly. They will need an ongoing infrastructure in place to assist them to live safely and without exposure to disease.
I’m particularly concerned with the long term outcomes on labor markets of the child care and schooling burden coupled with increased reliance on ‘work from home’ (WFH), or what we actually should call home-work. This will inevitably lead some people, disproportionately women, to step out of the paid labor force temporarily, with long term consequences for their income and professional advancement. White collar professionals, able to work remotely, have for several months been trying to juggle the demands of WFH with care for children whose schooling needs supervision, or elderly parents who need increased assistance. The double-care burden is perhaps even more onerous for those who must continue to leave their homes to work in essential jobs, while still sorting out the needs of children and elderly relatives. Whatever our status or occupation, we should be compensated for this double work load. Better yet, we should live in economies where care work is distributed and fairly compensated.
This is one reason why the Biden plan is so attractive. It acknowledges the real jobs involved in the care of children and the elderly, and calls for that work to be compensated. On the needs of the elderly, he says, “Think of expanded vital services like rides to appointments, meals and day programs for seniors, and making their homes safer for them.” He names community health workers and child care workers as essential workers. And he calls for a living wage for all of them.
The care economy includes major sectors of the paid labor force, in particular health and education. Many countries underfund teachers and public education to the detriment of their economies; the US has followed suit. Let’s recognize that every single employee in a public school is an essential worker. If we want to send our children back to school safely anywhere, we need to dramatically expand our investments in the education workforce. The US has starved its education system and overburdened teachers with growing class sizes. It has underpaid teachers and school staff. Now, as part of an immediate recovery package, we need to fund states so they can create a larger cadre of teachers’ aides in the short run, shrink class sizes, improve teacher pay and begin to train more teachers for the long run. Smaller classes, staggered schedules and for virtual learning, and extra help to supervise online education will help reopen schools in the short run; they are also a worthy long run investment.
There are other essential public services, in particular health care related jobs, that could be included as well and indeed it might be good to expand our notion of care to rebuild civic life and civic participation. The Centre for Future Work in Australia has proposed raising wages for all essential work, rightly noting that it’s no accident that these essential jobs, long considered ‘women’s work’, are low-paid not because of supply and demand, but because of centuries of gender discrimination. And this is really what’s preventing us from providing the right kind of economic relief right now.
Calls to invest in the care economy are solidly supported by evidence regarding the multiplier effects of such investments; investing in the care economy would get our entire economy back on its feet. The barrier to common sense is, unfortunately, sexism and in the US at least, racism. The myth of the lazy ‘welfare queen’ persists and is reinforced daily; indeed the latest iteration even attacks unemployment compensation at a time of record unemployment as enabling ‘freeloaders.’ And the most insidious attack on living wages and adequate social protection is unfortunately winning converts across the spectrum. It’s Universal Basic Income, or UBI. The no-strings-attached, everyone-gets-a-check approach is touted as avoiding the ‘stigma’ attached to conditional benefits, but it really gives tacit consent to that unfair stigma. It actively undermines calls for living wages. We need to tackle head on the myth of freeloading, not enable it. “I’ll just take the check and sit at home and do nothing,” said no woman ever. People are working and they aren’t compensated for much of that work. Pay them for the work they are doing.
As a certain brand of homo economicus finds existing social protection too ‘complicated’ to administer, let’s make it simple for them (while recognizing that if we properly fund the administrative apparatus for social protection, it’s not all that complex). Here’s a very simple idea for those who find simplicity appealing. Create an immediate cash stipend for anyone who can demonstrate they are involved in care work, paid or unpaid. Define care work broadly and include a range of community services. Make it simple to access and avoid cumbersome paperwork. Adjust who and what it covers over time. In the long run, like similar schemes elsewhere, it will serve to tighten labor markets and drive up wages in essential sectors. As the economy recovers, we can transition to training programs and creating greater public investment in these sectors.
We have the resources to do this. During the past several decades ‘trickle up’ economics has left an unprecedented level of wealth in the hands of an extremely few people. There is now a rapidly growing movement, including even some wealthy spokespeople, to tax the rich. While corporations and wealthy individuals enjoy the lowest tax rates ever, we have been undermining our education, health and care infrastructure creating what is now a crisis that could have been prevented. But we can fix it. The Biden plan is a start. If we support a Care Income, we’ll be moving toward a truly just economy.