A Feminist Critique of the Care Economy
Nancy Folbre - August 2014
By Nancy Folbre – It would seem that contemporary capitalism doesn’t care that much about care work. Including support for our elders, children, mentally ill, and others requiring assistance, care work is either poorly remunerated or, quite often, not paid at all. Professional care workers are among the least protected and most exploited members of the labor force. Mothers, grandmothers, and others who sacrifice to nurture our past and future generations are told to take reward from the righteousness of their task; meanwhile, the elites—whose business practices are oftentimes anything but righteous—console themselves with a wild accumulation of riches by sheer dispossession.
Reference to mothers and grandmothers is not hyperbolic; care work, both paid and unpaid, is overwhelmingly performed by women. It is also disproportionately performed by women of color, particularly as the decline of manufacturing and rise of economic inequality continues to provoke an upsurge in low-wage service sector employment. The chronic undervaluation and lack of respect for care work thus represents and perpetuates white supremacy and patriarchy in our society.
Our relationship to care work of course does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is buttressed and guided by hegemonic institutions—from the mainstream media to our schools and churches—as well as by government policy, which this study examines in depth. The development of gender and race roles in care work is intimately linked to the way our welfare states have been constructed. Public policies have been used to socialize the benefits of children more successfully than the costs, redistributing resources from parents to non-parents and from mothers (who devote the most time and money to the next generation) to everyone else.
In this study, Nancy Folbre, MacArthur Fellow and professor emerita of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explores the contemporary treatment of care work and what can be done to change it. Starting with the concept of care and its historical development within the framework of the welfare state, Folbre builds a damning case against patriarchal capitalism and its exploitation of those who sustain its past, present, and future. Then, turning to the here-and-now, the author aims her sharp analytical insight to the middle-distance and proposes a series of reforms that is sufficiently realistic to be achievable within the current constraints of the existing order, yet far-reaching enough to speak to our transformative dreams—how can we imagine a more sustainable and less exploitative world for our children and children’s children? This text provides a thorough roadmap for activists and academics fighting to reframe our notions of care and the value our society assigns it.
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