What is the Caring Economy?

Nelles, Kaleigh

Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team

I had never heard of the care economy until a meeting with Progress North recently. When she gave me a brief introduction, I knew that it was something worth learning more about. As I learn more about Progress North’s work and vision, I learn lots of new concepts and language that are used by advocates and policymakers. Learning these things has helped me feel more informed and better able to meaningfully participate in making systemic changes to support improvements in everyday life.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, the care economy exists as part of formal and informal economies, focusing on care work. The same source defines care work as “looking after the physical, psychological, emotional, and developmental needs of one or more people.” This includes healthcare, childcare, early childhood education, care for people with disabilities, and eldercare. Indirect forms of care like cooking and cleaning are also included. 

This work traditionally and still today relies on women, especially women of color, as supported by data featured on Inequality.org and other sources. Inequality.org reports that men’s time as a share of women’s time doing unpaid care work in the United States is 62%. Rephrasing this information, you can say that if an average woman in the U.S. spends 100 hours per month doing unpaid care work, a man only spends 62 hours doing similar work. If you looked at this in a 4 week period, that would be 25 hours for a woman versus 15 and ½ hours for a man during that same week. That difference of 9 and ½ hours per week is more than an entire standard workday! This difference in time that an average woman in the U.S. will perform unpaid and sometimes unappreciated work is huge! What would you do with an extra 9 and ½ hours per week? 

The gender differences in care work, both paid and unpaid, are at the heart of a recent article in The New York Times titled “Rosie Could Be a Riveter Only Because of a Care Economy. Where is Ours?” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter encourages a broader definition of infrastructure in support of the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to grow the care economy in the United States. She reports that the dictionary definition of infrastructure includes basic facilities that enable a society to function, with examples of transportation, buildings, and communications as services, but emphasizes that this focus on physical infrastructure does not include other areas that enable a society to function, specifically care work. 

Her message of expanding what we consider the basics for society to function resonates with me. Transportation, communications, and buildings are quite well established in most areas of the United States, though rural Wisconsin struggles with public transportation and bad cell phone reception in some areas. Thinking of the people in my life from growing up in Ashland, it feels safe to say that more people are affected by poor access to health care, dental care, and early childhood education. The need for improved healthcare access led to The Lakes Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center, that opened in 2008 to serve Bayfield, Ashland, Douglas, and Iron counties. Access to dental care providers that accepted Medicaid & BadgerCare was also very limited, so the group opened a dental clinic in Ashland in 2009 to fill the gap. In 2013, a merger led The Lakes to partner with another community health center and become NorthLakes Community Clinic, a health system that offers a variety of services and outreach to 12 communities across northern Wisconsin. This kind of infrastructure that helps people become and stay healthy to enjoy their lives, work their jobs, and care for their loved ones is more of what we need. It’s the kind of infrastructure that can get overlooked and pushed aside by some politicians. It’s less glamorous than a smooth new layer of tar on a highway traveled by thousands, but it saves lives. Lack of access to dental care accepting Medicaid led to the death of Deamonte Driver, a 12-year old whose mother was unable to find a dentist that would perform the $80 tooth extraction in Maryland in 2007. 

Another part of Slaughter’s message is that care work is unseen and not glamorous. She mentions care feminism versus career feminism and notes that advocating for child and elder care may be less flashy or newsworthy than other accomplishments by women recently, like electing the first female Vice President, is necessary for achieving true gender equality. If we want women to succeed, attain their education, and contribute to our workforce and society, we need to support women. People of all genders and races cannot do newsworthy things when they are pressured to care for our children or relatives that are elderly or disabled, especially when pressured to do so because of minimal access to alternatives. Our choices between doing what we love and taking care of the people we love should not be forced from a lack of access to care.

Kaleigh Nelles is a member of the Progress North Community Contributor Team

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