A Very Brief History of Why Care is So Undervalued in America

"Care is the work that makes all other work possible."

A Very Brief History of Why Care is So Undervalued in America
Photo by Europeana / Unsplash

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I’m super excited that my report for Better Life Lab at New America, A Playbook to Transform How America Cares: The Care Movement’s Winning Tactics, Lessons, and Case Studies from the Pandemic-era and Beyond will be out October 24th, less than three weeks from now!

I have never written a book myself, so this wide-ranging, beefy 23,000-word extravaganza is my closest parallel and holy God, it was a lot of work! But I’m really excited to share some of the impactful ideas and lessons I’ve learned with Double Shifters and the larger world.

Today, I’m starting to share a few excerpts of this work with newsletter readers! I spent a lot of time in the report writing about how care worker unionization is a really exciting tactic to transform our economy and how care works in America. This was barely on my radar before I started this reporting. But before I jump into why I’m so jazzed about unions, I think it’s important for everyone to have a little background in the history of why care work is so devalued and how economically marginalized care workers are. It’s too simple to say care work is undervalued just because women have historically done it. It’s much more complex and deliberate than that. So, in today’s newsletter, I want to lay out some of the history and current realities of care work, and then in a newsletter later this month, I’m going to share some exciting solutions I’ve learned about.

This research was supported by The Better Life Lab at New America, and this is just a sneak peak of  EVEN MORE GOODNESS available to read on October 24th. Enjoy!

I love the quote from the President of the National Domestic Workers Alliance Ai-jen Poo “Care is the work that makes all other work possible.” It is so true, and yet care workers are some of the lowest-paid and most marginalized in our economy.

The way our system of care treats workers in America isn’t an accident. Throughout U.S. history, domestic workers and those in care professions have been overrepresented by immigrants and women of color. The roots of undervaluing their work trace back to the days when enslaved Black women were expected to do domestic work and caregiving for free under brutal conditions. The U.S. also has a long history of waves of female immigrants who arrived from Europe seeking jobs as maids or who arrived as indentured servants, working as domestics for a set number of years to pay for their passage to the new world.

During New Deal safety net expansion negotiations in the 1930s, for racist reasons, domestic workers were systemically excluded from gains in worker protections, like minimum wage, overtime laws, and the 1935 Social Security Act. Cleaners, laundresses, nannies, and cooks also faced resistance from organized labor itself; early-mid 20th-century unions were often racially segregated and had sexist views about what was considered “real work.” In Kim Kelly’s book, Fight Like Hell, she writes, “In an ugly preface to the modern debate around valuing ‘hidden labor’ of managing a household, the AFL [American Federation of Labor] and CIO’s [Congress of Industrial Organizations] member unions were in many ways impediments to establishing the legitimacy of domestic workers, the AFL deeming theirs to be “unskilled work” and the CIO declaring the home to “not be a workplace.” Because domestic worker pay was so low, they also faced additional obstacles to their unionizing efforts because they couldn’t be funded through the typical system of union dues, and, if they worked in individual homes, had no way to connect with each other, or have an “employer of record” to collectively bargain with.

“Care is the work that makes all other work possible.”      - Ai-jen Poo

So let’s fast forward to today’s realities. Early child care workers are who we entrust with the safety, social, emotional, and brain development of our future are making a median salary of $28,520 per year. That’s $13.71 per hour with more than half of childcare workers being enrolled in at least one public assistance program due to their low income. It’s no surprise that in 2022 there were 100,000 fewer childcare workers than there were in 2019, with workers sometimes choosing higher-paid retail and service jobs from large companies who could afford to raise their wages.

The basic reason for this is that our childcare system is caught in a classic market failure. The Better Life Lab’s Care Report found that parents shoulder 60 percent of the overall childcare costs of the system, while federal, state, and local governments pay 39 percent to subsidize tuition for those on very low incomes. Philanthropy contributes one percent. Without robust subsidies, workers are not paid enough to have a living wage while parents are maxed out on what they can afford. Even if you can afford childcare costs that often exceed mortgage or rent payments, availability is hard to find. Even before the pandemic, 51 percent of Americans lived in “child care deserts,” where there were either no options at all or more than three kids for every licensed spot. This has resulted in an “every family for themselves” system to find care for children zero to five, and a dearth of options for kids five and older for “out-of-school-time.” (This includes summers and all of the time outside of the six-and-a-half hours a day when school is in session, which is far less than a typical full-time work schedule.) Mothers disproportionately experience career disruptions to support their family’s needs, and clock more childcare hours than fathers to compensate for these systemic shortfalls. These inequities were only made worse during the pandemic. Despite the fact that over 70 percent of mothers with young children are now participating in the labor force, our policy and public opinion are still conflicted about the idea of mothers working for pay. As recently as 2013, a Pew Research study found that 51 percent of respondents said they thought children were better off if their mother was at home and not working for pay. Only 16 percent said that young children who had a mother who worked full time was ideal. Even though two-family earners are more common than ever, these attachments to an archaic vision of gender roles and motherhood—that aren’t tethered to the reality of our daily lives or economy—persist and may negatively impact forward progress in investment in the childcare system.

Those who work in eldercare and disability care, and preserve the dignity and quality of life of some of the most vulnerable in our society, face similar economic hardship and marginalization.

The median salary for direct care workers who work in elder and disability care in 2022 was $30,180 per year or $14.51 per hour. Just over 40 percent of direct care workers use public assistance programs. Many don’t have access to health insurance for their own care.

The bonds of love and intimacy created through care work, especially when caring for children and the elderly, have often been weaponized against domestic workers seeking better pay and conditions. In Sarah Jaffe’s book, Work Won’t Love You Back, she shares the story of a worker named Elvira who was told by her employer, “‘You’re just like one of the family.’ [....] When Elvira responded that she had her own family—and that family did not treat her badly—the employer snapped, ‘Remember, you’re just a maid.’”

If you are like me, you probably find all of this pretty depressing. But wait! There are concrete ways to fix this status quo. Political and philanthropic investments in care workers can also produce what Ai-jen Poo terms “triple dignity investments,” where the care workers and their families benefit from high-quality jobs, those receiving care benefit from high-quality care, and the parents and/or unpaid family caregivers can more fully participate in the labor market. “Transforming care jobs will have a ripple effect throughout the economy and culture that’s mind-blowing,” said Poo.

Stay tuned for more of my solutions reporting on this and be sure you are subscribed to the newsletter so you don’t miss it.

For this week’s member thread: I want to know, how do you value the care workers in your life? Check your inboxes tomorrow! And if you want in on this conversation, become a member! You get members-only threads, hangouts, and audio newsletters. Plus, it’s a great way to value the labor I put into this newsletter. 🙂

🚨Alert:🚨 I’ll be at the MH Worklife Conference in NYC Oct 26th and Carefest in LA November 2nd and 3rd. Hit me up if you’ll be at either!


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