We have the Bill of Rights and we have civil rights. Now we need a Right to Care, and it’s going to take a movement to get it.
Care is as essential as the air we breathe. Two centuries of myth-making about rugged individualism will not yield easily to the painful fact that dependence is the human condition. In addition to the 38 million children under age 10 who need looking after, we now have somewhere between 30 million and 50 million people who need help with the basic tasks of daily life to be able to lead decent lives.
It took a movement to re-envision air and water so they didn’t appear to be free and inexhaustible resources. By one recent estimate, 27 million people–more than 11 million of them men–are providing an average of eighteen hours a week of informal care to someone over 18. According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, caregivers to the elderly who also work in the paid labor force frequently turn down promotions, take leaves of absence or early retirement, or even give up their jobs to accommodate their caregiving. We need a movement to demonstrate that caring is not a free resource, that caring is hard and skilled work, that it takes time and devotion, and that people who do it are making sacrifices.
We need a movement because caregiving is a class issue and a labor issue as well as a social-welfare issue. Working alongside the informal-care brigade is an army of underpaid and overworked formal caregivers. While the rest of the economy is downsizing, caregiving jobs are booming. But these new jobs pay minimum wage or a little more, and usually lack any kind of security, benefits or possibility for advancement.
We need a care movement because this is how the left can and should reclaim family values from the right, which blames families for neglecting their responsibilities and castigates poor women for balking at below-subsistence wages in care work. The left must highlight all the ways society thwarts the primeval urge to care.
Three Rights to Care
Rights are not magic wands for curing social problems, but they are a splendid device for mobilizing a movement. By demanding the right to care, we can point out just how inhumane many current policies are.
A right to care means, first, that families are permitted and helped to care for their members. Contrary to all the conservative rhetoric about families shirking their responsibilities, most families are making heroic efforts to care for themselves in the face of huge obstacles society puts in their way. The entire system of paid work is hostile to family responsibility. Rigid schedules, long hours, changing shifts, mandatory overtime, the near-universal lack of leave time to take care of sick relatives–all block workers from caring for their families.
The reformed welfare system won’t tolerate (much less support) women who choose to be full-time mothers. Such women are deemed irresponsible parasites, while–perversely–when they take care of other people’s children for pay, as daycare workers or home health aides, for example, they are considered virtuous.