A study of the international movement to value traditionally unpaid care roles
Taking care of someone else is the difference between a society of sole operators and a community that nurtures each other. All societies that have survived have provided nurturing.
Many paid careers involve this gentle care of others, from the pilot who flies people safely to their destination, to the doctor who tends their health, from the police officer who protects them, the school teacher who empowers them with skills, to the plumber who keeps their homes and offices functioning well. There is a care aspect to most paid jobs.
However even more basic than that, are the nurturing roles in the home—done by those who tend the young, sick, handicapped, frail elderly and dying, who are not paid but whose work society depends on.
They are the first tier of education, the first tier of health care, the first tier of respecting the law, the first tier of care of seniors, the first tier of life. They are the ones who make sure the home runs smoothly so those with paid careers can rest assured all is well with the loved ones, as they do their paid work.
Each of us has been a receiver of care in our childhood and during illness. Each is called from time to time to be a caregiver as an adult. It is a role that anchors society.
The unpaid care sector ensures that physical needs are met—food, clothing, shelter, exercise, health. It ensures that practical needs are met—teaching the young to walk and talk, read, learn to handle money, throw a ball, make a meal, drive a car. It ensures that emotional needs are met—listening, noticing interests, stimulating the mind, encouraging. It is the support that makes a person feel valued, confident, resilient. It is the first entry into society, to teach how to take turns, share, be kind and honest. And it is the warmth of love and a hand to hold in the last moments of life.
It takes time and patience to provide care. Families depend on it, societies depend on it—and even federal budgets need it, though they have often taken it for granted.
Not seen as useful work
Officially, governments did not notice it as useful work and took steps to get all adults into full-time paid jobs instead. In theory this looked like a smart move to get unemployed people into the paid labor force, paying tax and contributing to society. In practice it simply meant they all were taken from many care roles.
To further nudge women out of the home, benefits for the care role, when it was noticed, were tied to paid work. Many nations provided maternity and parental benefits based on the paid work of the parent, and made expenses for caregiving deductible only if the parent had paid work. Those who were still caregivers at home got no parallel funding.
Economies that required that someone take care of the vulnerable, but also discouraged such care, faced a problem. One answer was for the state itself to provide group care of the young, the handicapped, the elderly, the dying.
This answer proved costly. Taxes went up to cover the new bills. Polls showed that the public was frustrated with lack of options when a one-size-fits-all solution was imposed on them.
Pressuring men and women out of the home was successful and some felt empowered. Others, however, felt forced away from a care role they had wanted. Over time birth rates dropped below the 2.2 needed for economic sustainability. Women were not anxious to have children if time with them was not valued. Economists noticed that lack of births eroded the tax base for the future.
A new set of problems
Unavailability of the “family firefighter” to come in crisis created a new loneliness among seniors and wayward behaviour among some teens. Drug use and teen alcoholism rates increased as did forays into juvenile delinquency, teen bullying, predatory behavior towards vulnerable teens and gang membership. Young adults facing high student debt delayed many adult launching experiences such as buying their own home or marrying and starting a family. Birth rates went even lower.
The loneliness of seniors became so severe that the UK set up a Ministry of Loneliness to try to address it. Mothers and parents’ groups around the world lobbied governments to value the care role back in the home and to stop penalizing it.
Some governments took small moves to address these concerns with birth benefits and benefits for large families. Many nations allowed a household based tax to ensure that being home with someone who needs care might be affordable again.
However other nations have not made such moves. The official push to only count paid work continues, along with preferential funding for large group settings for seniors, the handicapped and the young who need care.
The 2020 pandemic has raised global attention to the risks of overcrowded facilities. Seniors in care homes became key victims of the COVID-19 virus. Large group care anywhere, in universities, hospitals and even prisons clearly were high risk for infection as were crowded industrial operations.
The home care sector
The value of the mundane at-home care role again surfaced, as many households returned to the home out of necessity due to social distancing, isolation and curfews dealing with the pandemic. There they discovered new options for paid work—online meetings, webinars, telecommuting. Businesses discovered the lower office costs of permitting such ways to do paid work. Adults back in the home rediscovered the demands young children have for time and attention. The care role again was noticed as an anchor to society.
However governments, to recover costs from the pandemic and trying to “restart” the economy, risked falling again into the blindness towards the part of the economy that had never stopped—the home care sector.
A move to push people again out of the care role, to get all men and women “back to work” is a common theme of some governments in post-pandemic plans. And yet, such a move could return society to the problems of ignoring caregiving.
So this is a time of opportunity. We must widen our view of what matters in an economy, and notice that the care role, that simple role in the home, saved us and maintains us.
A personal choice
Some want to pay third parties to provide care and that option works for them. Let them. But others want to be caregivers themselves or make family care arrangements. Let them. Governments need to value care wherever it happens, fund it equally and give choices.
As it turns out, international human rights principles, human needs surveys, guiding principles of law, economics and tax are often consistent with ensuring
such choices. And as it turns out, valuing the care role has a lot in common with other rights revolutions. In an era where it is abundantly clear that black lives matter, gay rights matter, indigenous rights matter, the rights of the handicapped matter, caregivers matter too.
This article was excerpted from equalityandcaregiving.org, created by Beverly Smith, a graduate of the University of Calgary in Canada and winner of several international awards for women’s rights, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal and the International Women’s Day Outstanding Service Award.