Three Lessons in Building Care Solidarity
The more we push the care crisis as a social problem affecting everyone rather than a limited problem for some “customers,” the easier it will be to build coalitions for change.
This month I’m deep into reporting on the future of the care movement for my Better Life Lab at New America fellowship. I’m thinking about care to include everything from childcare, to disability care, to elder care, to reproductive rights and beyond. An important part of this work is changing culture and conversations around care, and some of this will come when more people awaken to the reality that the personal problems they experience with care aren’t personal at all. In fact, they are deeply political and require concerted effort, organizing and policy change, not life hacks. Based on my reporting so far, I want to share a sneak peek of three big picture ideas I’m developing about how important it is for individuals to reframe our personal experiences with the care crisis and how we can connect our own life experiences to a bigger movement.
1. We Need to Zoom Out instead of Zooming In: Most project managers and therapists would tell you if you were faced with a really huge problem, like care being devalued in American society, rather than getting overwhelmed by the scope of the challenge, break it up into smaller tasks and digestible chunks. Don’t attempt to tackle it all at once. While this is perfectly practical advice, that’s where the consciousness of most people who are affected by the care crisis gets stuck. If you are an unpaid caregiver who needs to procure paid care, this is usually an urgent issue that you have to address immediately and can take a huge amount of resources in terms of time, money and energy to solve. This leaves you little bandwidth to think about the larger issues at play.
Let’s take the situation of early childhood care. Even before COVID, this was logistically challenging, expensive, and fell totally on individual families to sort out. If you were becoming a parent for the first time, there’s a steep learning curve in understanding the daycare market that you must face along with all of the challenges of new parenthood, like sleep deprivation, navigating paid work with your new responsibilities etc. All of these things have become even more challenging now with the number of centers that closed permanently during COVID and how many daycares struggle to find and retain staff. Thankfully, COVID has also helped people realize that there are systemic forces that make the zero-to-5 care market so difficult and it’s not a personal failing that individual parents can’t find spots or afford rising costs. Once parents finally land on a “solution” regardless of how compromised or untenable it is, individuals want a break from feeling immersed in this problem. It’s understandable that people want to create some sense of functional normalcy. So, we break it up into small chunks and think, “only two more years until I’m finally done paying for daycare!!!” We want to see this problem as discrete. But while many of us are just trying to take it one day at a time, the reality is that the daycare struggle is not a blip or a short-term hardship. It’s just often a first gauntlet followed by a lifetime of social failures around care.
2. We Need to Expand Our Time Horizon: Too often we see the need for care as short term and temporary rather than the general norm of life. For some people, there are periods of care intensity interspersed with lulls of calm. But everyone needs a reality reframe that having caregiving responsibilities as an adult is actually the norm. NOT having any is a rare anomaly. Zero-to-5 challenges for children are followed by aftercare and summer camp boondoggles. Paid family leave inequities are a different side of the same coin of medicaid challenges for disabled people and medicare navigation for the elderly. Dealing with outrageous costs for daycare is the different side of the same coin from dealing with outrageous costs of long-term care. And guess what? Daycare worker shortages and bus driver shortages and afterschool worker shortages and summer camp counselor shortages and teachers shortages and home health aide worker shortages and nursing home worker shortages are deeply intertwined. Without working systemically to have government support to raise all of these workers’ pay, treat them as professionals, and improve their conditions, all signs point to a world where care consumers will likely spend their lives hopping between these “acute” labor crises. Some people might squeeze in a carefree decade. But most need to realize that while the specifics will change, caregiving will be a constant. Awakening to this can help us open our minds to why we need to get educated and involved on ALL of these issues, even if we aren’t living them at that exact moment.
3. We Need to Center More Kinds of People: High profile, national discussions about the care crisis often focus on the experience of the “care customer,” and not the care worker, the care business owner or the larger costs to adjacent industries and society. It was only recently these stories around childcare and eldercare were told regularly at all, so what I’m suggesting is not silencing "customer" voices, but just adding many more to the mix. The more we push the care crisis as a social problem affecting everyone rather than a limited problem for some “customers,” the easier it will be to build coalitions for change. Parents and caregivers are a very important part of the movement, but real social change will not come from trying to organize people who see themselves as experiencing a personal and temporary hardship. I despise the question, “if things are so bad for parents, why don’t they organize?” Asking the people who have the least time to give and are shouldering the literal costs for a broken care system is itself an unjust framing. Unionizing care workers, organizing business alliances, involving economic justice and living wage advocates, bringing in economists and politicians who are concerned about labor shortages and activating non-profit and faith groups are key to building coalitions that can keep up the determination required to make plodding progress. Take for example, the case of the state of New Mexico, that added access and $150 million a year of funding for childcare to their constitution through a ballot initiative. While some news organizations say it took a year of lobbying, it actually took 10 years of organizing and primarying conservative Democrats blocking their way to achieve their goal, with many power building, smaller legislative victories along the way.
I’m not highlighting the scope of the problem to be depressing or overwhelming. I’m doing it to try to help people see that their current experience is a dot in a continuum of caregiving and argue for why we need to cultivate a long game of solidarity. What that looks like in practice is handing out water bottles to picketing home health aide workers when you had to take the day off because your kid’s day care class was closed due to staffing shortages. It’s writing letters to the county commissioner to increase the after-school budget even though your kids are old enough to stay home alone. It’s voting to raise your own taxes for a universal pre-k initiative even though you are happily child-free. It’s giving your housecleaner a raise because you can afford it, even if she didn’t ask for it. It’s advocating for your company to include eldercare in their family leave policy even though your own parents are still in great health.
I’ve thought a lot about what 21st century consciousness-raising groups could look like. A feminist initiative in the 1970s, women got together in small groups in living rooms to share personal stories of sexism and encouraged each other to connect them to larger social structures. The practice fizzled out in the 80s, and I’ve mused about what this could look like if this was revived with a lens on motherhood, or capitalism, or caregiving, or some combination of the three. (Honestly, Double Shift Membership is probably the closest thing out there to this idea!) But until this idea catches on more widely, we must navigate our own crises while recognizing that we are each just one story. But together we can be part of a larger movement.
Thanks to The Better Life Lab at New America for their support in the research for this newsletter.
For this week’s members-only thread, I’ll be asking Double Shifters, what was one of the moments that you realized care in America wasn’t just a personal problem, but that much larger forces were at play? I’ve loved our recent members-only threads, like what money topics we should talk about more, so if you want in on some of the most thoughtful discussions on the internet, become a member. You also get audio newsletters and virtual and IRL hangouts. And you are supporting small, indie, mom-run media!
April Member Hangout: Adult Friendships
Tuesday, April 25th 1PM EST
In this month’s virtual member hangout, I want to talk about one of adulthood’s biggest puzzles: how do you make friends after the age of 25? The pandemic made making new friends even harder, even as many of us have gone through big transitions like moves to new cities, new careers and new children. Join me for an interactive discussion where I’ll be sharing ideas but also asking for YOU ALL to share what’s worked. We’ll also do some breakout rooms to give you all a chance to forge some virtual connections. It will be fun! This is one of the perks of membership. Become a member to join in on the fun.