EDITOR’S NOTE: We published this series in the fall, not knowing when the next big economic downturn would hit. Needless to say, we didn't anticipate a global pandemic setting it off—but many of the recommendations our authors and experts proposed at the time remain relevant to our current economic situation.
As long as we’ve had capitalism, we’ve had financial crises. Today, mainstream economists acknowledge that the next crisis will be resolved not by monetary policy but through serious spending by the government. To ensure that the spending is committed to wealth redistribution and helps the left build new constituencies, progressives should consider a feminist analysis: namely, compensating the reproductive labor that remains largely invisible and woefully under-appreciated in this country.
This labor includes all the work that holds families and communities together, from child-rearing and elder care to community politics. Theorist Nancy Fraser describes it as the “social glue” that allows for social cooperation; without it, there would be “no economy, no polity, no culture,” she writes. But over the last few decades, the people who do this work—mostly women—have absorbed shock after capitalist shock. Care that used to be social and supported by state investment has been thrown back on individuals and the family as a private concern.
Consider that federal public investment today stands at its lowest level since 1947. Advocates for social services have been losing ground for decades. A comprehensive child care bill with bipartisan congressional support was killed back in 1971, after a young Pat Buchanan persuaded Richard Nixon that a veto could be used to rally cultural conservatives. Ronald Reagan fought to reduce spending on social services so successfully that “in real terms,” according to John Miller in Dollars & Sense, programs for low-income Americans “suffered a withering 54 percent cut in federal spending from 1981 to 1988,” including things like housing subsidies and employment services. Reagan justified these reductions as an answer to the crisis of stagflation.
The 1990s saw continued cuts under Bill Clinton, who declared the “end of welfare as we know it” and required that most women seeking benefits work. (The work of raising children didn’t count.) His brand of austerity was meant to court so-called moderates who cared about the federal deficit. Today, as a result, everything from welfare to health care to child care has languished. What the state no longer provides, individuals and families must—and those providers tend to be women.
At the same time, real wages have fallen since the 1970s, burdening workers even more. The family wage is no longer even an aspirational norm; these days, everybody has to work, and too many struggle to get by without even a living wage. Fraser and others have called the resulting crush a “crisis of care,” in which the very fabric of society is shredded and women are tasked with just barely holding it together under enormous pressure—including the demands of work. An unexpected event like an illness or unplanned pregnancy can become catastrophic, and all of life is permeated with the need to compete and make no mistakes, lest one fall into poverty and debt. Everything that business doesn’t want to pay for through higher taxes, better wages, or employee benefits has been foisted onto families, which, in turn, must keep their members healthy enough to work.
The next financial crisis will present an opportunity for the left to put the economy back in the service of life. This means that in our response to the crisis, we must not fall into the trap of placing “productive” waged work over unpaid reproductive work. Full employment and a Green New Deal are important, but it would be a grave mistake not to put care work at the center of our political project.
What would this look like in practice? For one, it would require taking basic forms of care off the market and making them a shared public responsibility instead. Medicare for All is already a core demand of the left; we must add to it universal, free child care. Not only is this an issue that affects millions of families, but the expense has also made good care an often unreachable luxury. According to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, the average cost of licensed infant child care is $1,230 per month, which is almost a fifth of the US median family monthly income. In over 50 percent of states, one year of care for infants outside the home costs more than the average yearly cost of public college tuition. In the past decade, the cost of child care has increased by nearly 25 percent, while real wages have roughly stayed the same.
In an interview with Refinery29, political science professor Marissa Martino Golden notes that after welfare policy changes in the 1990s, many low-income women tried to enter the workforce but found they had few options when it came to taking care of their kids. “That forced them to use either lower-quality care providers or child care that was not reliable. If child care was not available one day, [these women] would likely be fired from their jobs,” she says. Things aren’t any better today: According to a new study by the center, parents in the retail and food service sector (which accounts for 17 percent of jobs in the US economy) are often required to work variable shifts and so must depend on “more numerous care arrangements,” including a “reliance on informal care,” such as “children [being asked] to provide care for themselves and for their siblings.”
“I think expanding access to child care…is one of the best economic policies you can put in place,” says Kate Bahn, an economist at the center. This offers workers greater security, and “when we treat these workers well, it also affects the quality of child care, which improves outcomes for the children receiving that care—a long-term positive effect.”
Bahn adds that universal child care would stimulate demand in the event of a recession. “If we believe that having a child care program will benefit both child care workers and those who currently pay for the care, the program is really targeting those [who] have a higher marginal propensity to consume. In other words, they will spend the money that they now have because of this universal program,” she says.
There is a large constituency for such a policy: all of the families affected by the care crisis (fewer than one in three children in the United States have a full-time, stay-at-home parent today) and people (mostly women) working in the sector. What’s more, there are about 2 million domestic workers in the United States, the majority of them immigrant women and women of color, and 1.2 million child care workers. Properly organized child care would also create unionized jobs in a category that is notorious for its exploitation of immigrant women, who are in a weak position to fight for higher wages.
At our next moment of crisis, we should demand free universal child care, a policy that would not only provide a powerful boost to the economy but also transform the way Americans view care work and labor. Eventually, care would come to be seen as a necessary task for society to invest in, not a private responsibility hidden from political life.