A Crisis Ignored: A briefing paper from the Global Women’s Project

by Julia Wartenberg
Women, both internationally and domestically, are entering the paid labor force in record numbers, but with that entrance they are confronted with conflicting demands. With responsibilities in both paid labor force work and unpaid care work and with little to no support from the current inadequate state social policies, women and men are finding it difficult to provide satisfactory care to their loved ones. A care deficit has been created and it has culminated in the current care crisis which is resonating throughout the world and is putting societies’ social fabrics at risk. It is a silent crisis, one which everyone is aware of and affected by, but one which is ignored in the public sector.
On a daily basis, Americans are finding it more and more problematic to find adequate and af- fordable child- and elder-care, to take maternity (let alone paternity) leave, or to find jobs offer- ing benefits such as paid family and sick leave. While individuals across the spectrum experience these commonalities, this crisis hits differing income groups with differing severity, low-income single mothers being hit the hardest. Mothers in this demographic are left with few options when it comes to childcare: leave the child with an inadequate or questionable caregiver or get fired. Dual- income working-class couples are left to face the care deficit on their own. Ineligible for the scarce government subsidies which exist, these couples try to juggle child- and elder-care through oppo- site work schedules and by relying on family members, friends, and neighbors. Middle- and upper- class professionals’ answer to the care deficit is often times to hire a caregiver, typically a woman from a developing country. It is important here to differentiate between these two classes – the upper-class who are able to hire caregivers with ease and little inconvenience to their income and the middle-class, who find the caregiver wages a heavy burden on their income, but view this as a better option than daycare.

Regardless of class, these families fuel the global care crisis and create care chains, transnational networks that reallocate physical and emotional labor so that daily care tasks can continue to be performed. Care workers originating in developing countries are often mothers as well. They leave their families to take jobs in developed countries, which have experienced a growth in both the formal and informal paid care services sector, such as healthcare services and domestic work. The paradox of these care chains, which are founded on an unequal power relationship, is that in an effort to provide for their own families and fill the void of their own care deficits, American families are unwittingly creating care deficits in the homes and communities of the women they hire. The migration of women becomes a major social burden on the sending nation.
Care chains only provide a temporary solution for women in the Global North as they ignore the real problem of inadequate social policies and defer such a search. Additionally, care chains are one of the variables which have led to an increase in the commodification of care. By commodifing care, paid care services have become the site of competitive low-wages, job insecurity, exploitation, and abuse thereby putting both caregivers and care receivers at risk. Furthermore, care workers are rarely able to advocate for their own rights and have few alternative options. Perhaps even more detrimental is the fact that the current configuration of care reproduces existing hierarchies. Not only does it perpetuate the gendered nature of care, but the gendered division of labor, existing class structure, and racial and ethnic inequalities – who gives care versus who receives care. Care chains illustrate the uneven development and unequal distribution of resources that exist globally and domestically.
The underpinnings of the care crisis can be found in policies (or non-policies), government, social, and economic structures, the gendered relations of power, and the notion that there is “man’s work” versus “woman’s work,” that masculine is the opposite of feminine. Primarily male dominat- ed institutions have created public social policy and allocated budgets which have ignored the care crisis. Structural adjustment programs; poverty; neo-liberal economics and social policy, including the commodification of care, and the liberalization of trade policies through the World Trade Orga- nization and Free Trade Agreements have all deepened the crisis.
International development work has further fueled this crisis through projects focusing on getting women into the workforce. Economic independence is one of the most vital variables in fighting gender inequality, but these projects have failed to take into account the unpaid care workloads for which women are still too often left solely responsible. Domestically, with the advent of the Great Recession, an increasing number of women are becoming the primary breadwinners, entering a workplace with little flexibility and no legal protection against caregiver discrimination; yet they are still left to manage and provide daily care needs. The consequence of these dual responsibilities is not merely tired women, but women who are not able to enter or to meaningfully partake in the public sphere.
Women are not the only ones feeling this squeeze. More men than ever before are reporting work- life conflict and experiencing some form of caregiver discrimination in the workplace, such as lack of promotion or termination. Yet while male participation in household work and childcare is up in dual-income couples, women continue to be the primary caregivers in both the formal and informal sector. This stems from the age-old assumption that nurturing is a women’s role, that it somehow comes naturally to them. This assumption, implicitly and explicitly, reinforces exploitation of women, maintaining the notion that a woman, somehow, has an infinite reserve of care that she is con- tinually able to provide, regardless of her other obligations. This postulation, that caring is natural and therefore offers an intrinsic reward, also serves as a justification for the low-wages caregivers receive.
As a society we have failed to recognize the centrality of care, rarely making it a focal point in main- stream media or national and international political discourse. For too long these problems have been defined as a family problem, a personal problem rather than a political one. But feminists have long espoused that the personal is political and, the care crisis is a problem of national and international significance. Care, both paid and unpaid, delivered in the formal sector or informal sector, is the economic and social foundation for all societies. Care services provide for, maintain, and make the labor supply possible. They produce our means of production and yet, the value and moral necessity of all care work, both paid and unpaid, continues to be invisible and undervalued. In failing to appreciate the centrality of care, society is putting its own human and social well-being at risk.
The measurement correlated with a society’s standard of living, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), entirely disregards care, pointedly demonstrating the invisibility of care in economics. New eco- nomic indicators are needed, ones which measure care work, status of women, health, environ- mental sustainability, etc. The health and well-being of children has been named as vital marker of a nation’s future economic outlook; yet, little attention is being given to those who care for and nurture these children. Some of the most important dimensions are currently left out by the GDP, thereby not offering an accurate picture of a society’s well-being.
How this crisis is addressed will determine our future capabilities, both as individuals and as so- cieties. But in addressing it, we must recognize the limited capacity that the Global South has to attend to such a problem. Their poverty leaves them unable to face the issues which drive the care deficit head on. The nations of the Global North must take the lead in this endeavor. To this end, the Global Women’s Project is seeking to promote an understanding of the care crisis in social, eco- nomic, political, and developmental arenas and to advocate for political and social action to address the crisis. In so doing we aim to make the care crisis a prominent issue on other NGO’s, faith-based organizations’, and policy makers’ agenda by framing the issue and debates, strengthening our alliances through partnership and coalition development, developing policy alternatives, identify- ing key policy interventions and people, and building a constituency for the care crisis. We will advocate that care is a basic human right, for affordable quality care for care receivers, and for the recognition and rights of caregivers. We maintain that new and more inclusive child- and elder-care support policies are needed, better anti-caregiver discrimination policies must be enacted, paid family and sick leave policies are needed, and family friendly work schedules are required. We will also advocate for more comprehensive and accurate indicators of a society’s overall well-being, not just economic. Our priority is to make care work and all care workers visible.


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