We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Feminists have argued for years that care needs to be more valued, and Jody Heymann's argument is a welcome addition to this debate.1 Yet there are limits to starting from liberal principles of justice and equality and expecting the value of care simply to fit within that framework. Heymann's argument—that equality of opportunity demands that family time for caring should be equalized—represents such an approach. Heymann argues that if time were organized more rationally around care, then more children would have better chances of success in school, more elderly relatives would receive adequate attention, work and productivity would improve, and society would be the better for it.2 There is a basic flaw in this argument: as long as caring remains a subordinate activity and value within the framework of a competitive, "winner-take-all" society, caring well within one's family will make one not a friend but an enemy of equal opportunity. In order to see this flaw, let us work from the personal to the social level and then consider an alternative.
Because we do not typically think of care in any terms except the intimate and personal, we usually translate this value into the pre-existing models of family caregiving. When we care, we do not think of society, we think of our intimates and their concrete and particular needs. In a competitive society, what it means to care well for one's own children is to make sure that they have a competitive edge against other children. On the most concrete level, while parents may endorse a principle of equality of opportunity in the abstract, their daily activities are most visibly "caring" when they gain special privileges and advantages for their children. Arguments about the value of universal public education and so forth, lose their force when they affect the possibility of our children's future. This example demonstrates that when care is embedded in another framework of values, it does not necessarily lead in a progressive direction.
Let us move the analysis from an individual to a social level. Valuable though care is, one way to understand a group's social power is in seeing whether it is able to force some other people to carry out its caregiving work. The distribution of care work thus reflects power. It is not simply a matter of irrational tradition that has shaped the transformation of work and care from agrarian to industrial to postindustrial schedules. The privatization of reproductive care that has accompanied the increasingly public nature of productive work reflects as well the relative social power of different groups to make their contributions more highly prized and recognized. Relatively more powerful people in society have a lot at stake in seeing that their caring needs are met under conditions that are beneficial to them, even if this means that the caring needs of those who provide them with services are neglected. More powerful people can fob caregiving work on to others: men to women, upper to lower class, free men to slaves. Care work itself is often demanding and inflexible, and not all of it is productive. People who do such work recognize its intrinsic value, but it does not fit well in a society that values innovation and accumulation of wealth.
Idealized middle-class family care in the United States thus requires, structures, and perpetuates some of the very inequities of care that Heymann describes. A "career person" only wants what is best for his or her family.3 This leads to the assumption that such people care for themselves, and that "care" is only a concern for the dependent and infirm—i.e., the young, the unhealthy, and the old. In fact, the model of the self-caring breadwinner is a deception: while working adults may not require the expert assistance of professional care givers, they may use a great deal of other people's care services (that is, routine caring work) to keep their busy lives on keel.4 In American society, the more elite one becomes, the more dependent one becomes upon others to satisfy one's basic caring needs: edible food, clean clothing, functional, attractive shelter. Thus, the parents who have flexible work schedules, whose children succeed at school, are probably using a vast array of care services. Such labor is among the poorest paid and least well-organized in our society. Heymann's widening gap is thus also a caregiving gap, though the ideology of private family "caring" covers up its roots and makes it more intractable.
There can be no doubt that what Jody Heymann has demonstrated is that, among the other problems and burdens they face, the less well off in our society also have fewer resources at their disposal to meet their caregiving needs. In the long run, the only way to remedy this situation is to recognize a universal need for care. Care is not only the concern of the young, old, and infirm. Everyone needs and uses care just as everyone provides care. One of the reasons in our society that people struggle so hard to make more money is to provide more of what they think of as these necessities to their families. Change can only occur if we radically imagine a societal structure that no longer requires that people compete against each other to make sure that their basic needs will be adequately met. Such a society will conceive of care not as a private good but as a broad and public value.
1 Mona Harrington makes an argument about how care creates gender inequality in Care and Equality (New York: Knopf, 1999). Eva Kittay shows how caring for the dependent requires a rethinking of the nature of equality in Love's Labor: Essays on Women, Equality and Dependence (New York: Routledge, 1999).
2 Heymann's example that government agencies have been slow to respond to the different temporal needs of citizens who engage in care is a powerful one. In Italy, feminists have worked to reform local governments so that they are attentive to tempi della città.
3 See Margaret Urban Walker, "Getting Out of Line: Alternatives to Life as a Career," in M. Walker, ed., Mother Time: Women, Aging and Ethics (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999).
4 This distinction is Kari Waerness's; see her "Informal and Formal Care in Old Age: What Is Wrong With the New Ideology in Scandinavia Today?" in Clare Ungerson, ed., Gender and Caring: Work and Welfare in Britain and Scandinavia (London: Harvester, Wheatsheaf, 1990).
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
In his new book, philosopher William MacAskill implies that humanity’s long-term survival matters more than preventing short-term suffering and death. His arguments are shaky.
In her new book, Danish poet Olga Ravn writes with open love, pity, and compassion for her strange yet familiar creations.
Draconian individual punishment distracts from systemic change and reinforces the cruelest and most racist system of incarceration on the planet.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.
To generate local, inclusive prosperity, cities must think beyond tech accelerators and science parks and instead embrace a wider range of innovation strategies.