How Capitalism Invented the Care Economy

How Capitalism Invented the Care Economy

How Capitalism Invented the Care Economy

This is what’s missing from the new conversation about care work.


When support systems were yanked out from under us during the pandemic, the importance of care work and care workers became clearer than ever. Families grappled with who would take care of the kids, clean the house, and walk the dog. Women left the workforce in record numbers; family relationships were strained; and, while some children managed, others suffered. More Americans now realize how much they depend on care workers for their daily survival. As the National Domestic Workers Alliance says, it is “the work that makes all other work possible.” Suddenly, window banners, public service announcements, and free donuts attested to the public’s gratitude to essential workers, and care workers were sometimes, though not always, included in that appreciation.

As important as this recognition is, it often does not come with the necessary material support and protection. Preferring pay over pats on the back, EMS workers in New York City recently boycotted the city’s ticker-tape parade to honor essential workers. As so many union leaders have insisted, workers deserve adequate wages, respect, and support, not just applause.

Current legislative proposals, including President Biden’s American Families Plan and Representative Pramila Jayapal’s more progressive Care for All Agenda, attempt to address this very issue. Designed to reward and value people engaged in paid and unpaid care work, the plans are a welcome shift in political discourse. The American Families Plan relies primarily on tax credits, while the Care for All Agenda promises higher wages and the right to unionization for care workers, a pathway to citizenship for undocumented care workers, and a federal jobs guarantee. Both proposals intend to center people over profit and to provide economic support to care workers as part of a broader “care infrastructure” plan.

The proposals are premised on the belief that care is a universal concern. Everyone cares for someone and, at some point, everyone needs care. The Care for All Agenda aims to build a caregiving system that “celebrates the interdependence of all people.” A commitment to uplifting care work is crucial, we are told, to bolster the economy and address the climate change crisis, immigration reform, and inequities in health care and education.

Claims of universality notwithstanding, the rationale for supporting care workers—that we depend on them—suggests that the praise and policy proposals are not really about them: It is about their employers. Workers are hailed as heroes for their commitment, sacrifice, and care. A Time magazine cover story in April 2020 was headlined: “Heroes of the Front Line: Stories of the Courageous Workers Risking Their Own Lives to Save Ours.” The well-being of people doing the caring is contingent upon their contributions to others’ well-being. Implicit in this discourse is that the worth of poor and working-class people of color is important to the degree that they serve and care for the middle and upper classes.

Few of the proposals explicitly address the care needs of the most marginalized and vulnerable—particularly those who don’t work. Even as the commitment to a caring economy has grown over the past 30 years, and policies like paid family leave have gained traction, public assistance programs for the neediest poor and working-class people of color have been cut to the bone.

Equally troubling is that the language of “care work” reifies the emotional component of the labor, obscuring that care workers are first and foremost workers. Do these workers really care? Should they care? Most employers want care workers to invest emotionally. They want their nanny to love their child as if it were her own. They want to believe that a nurse is caring for an elderly parent the same way they would. In short, they want care workers to work for both the “love and money,” in the words of feminist economist Nancy Folbre.

Many of the domestic workers activists I collaborated with over the past decade rejected a politics of care that foregrounded their employers and they generally did not believe that the ostensible credo that “we all care about one another” would benefit them equally. Rosa Navarro, who worked for the Latino Union of Chicago, said, “Our union was much more interested in building worker power than in care or developing alliances with middle-class constituents. We were certainly not interested in having to prove why we deserved labor rights.” The Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a worker-led organization, rejects the assumption that this labor is about care. According to Executive Director Linda Oalican, a domestic worker for 18 years, “The current discourse about the politics of care is reformist and will not fundamentally transform the status of caregivers. Equity and dignity for domestic workers and other excluded workers requires that the government and power holders in American society address structural racism, economic exploitation, and de facto discrimination.” And my own mother, who washed clothes for white families in apartheid South Africa, understood her work as necessary to pay school fees so her brothers could go to school, not as care for her employers.

This expectation of care or love is not new. It is an age-old demand placed on people who serve. For generations, domestic workers were presumed to be “one of the family.” That did not mean that they ate dinner with the rest of the family or inherited Grandma’s china. What it did mean was that employers could ask them to go above and beyond the call of duty—to stay late, to give up holidays, or listen to their employer’s woes—because they were presumed to love those they worked for. After all, isn’t that what many people do for their families? Without compensation, family members often step in when needed simply out of love.

The difference is that paid workers are not family. They are not in the family will and, although they might love their jobs, they rarely love their employers. And even if they do love them, they likely aren’t doing the work because they love them. The demand that workers care is a form of labor extraction, what sociologist Arlie Hochschild decades ago named “emotional labor.” Workers often expend emotional energy on their employers, or at least present an image of doing so. Carolyn Reed, a domestic worker activist in the 1970s, explained the emotional investment this way: “We are not selling our services, we are selling our souls.”

Rather than expect that workers care, it might be more fitting to know if they are carrying out their responsibilities—that is, to focus on the tasks or practice of taking care rather than the emotional performance of caring. Do they put a Band-Aid on a child’s scraped knee? Are they giving a blanket to an elderly person who is chilly?

The demand for care has been placed (or fallen like a ton of bricks) squarely on women. Care work is associated with women (and women have long been associated with care work) in part because of women’s unpaid labor in the home and misguided assumptions that women are naturally caring and nurturing. This association, which has unfairly burdened women, has also muddled our definition of what care work is. Too often, the terms “care work” and “women’s work” are used interchangeably. Is care work the work that takes place in the home? Domestic workers, many of whom clean but don’t provide care, are often considered care workers. Yet landscapers and plumbers who fix toilets in homes are not. If someone who prepares meals is a care worker, would we also label restaurant workers as care workers? If care involves direct contact with another human being, would we include therapists, personal trainers, nutritionists, and doctors? If it encompasses those in the health care industry, are nurses’ aides, hospital janitors, and bill collectors all care workers?

We need a new way to talk about this. The knee-jerk association of care work with women’s work erases the growing number of male care workers. It also lumps in women’s work (like cleaning) where there is no direct care of another human being. I prefer the term “social reproduction,” coined by Marxist-feminists in the 1970s, which refers to the labor—paid and unpaid, inside and outside the home—necessary to sustain life. Social reproduction makes visible the labor relationship and its essential role for the functioning of capitalism, which the language of universality shrouds. In much of the debate today, the paid care relationship is framed as between caregivers and care receivers, when we should be talking about employers and employees.

Centering the labor relationship makes clear how people with and without means have experienced the care crisis differently. Middle- and upper-class people have benefited from family and medical leave, tax breaks, and more flexible employment policies targeted to white-collar workers. They have also turned to privatized care—hiring low-wage workers to fill in the care gaps in their lives. Poor and working-class people have coped with a care crisis for generations, exacerbated by the gutting of our public welfare system. Concurrent with the emergence of the care discourse, which dates back to the 1990s, welfare was dismantled, carceral rates increased, the number of children in foster care skyrocketed, and many poor and working-class families turned to debt as a survival mechanism.

Over the past few decades, the care discourse has made little difference in the lives of the poor. Despite the assumption that everyone benefits from policies that support parents and caregivers, the care agenda has been laser-focused on those with some economic means. Tax credits, paid leave, and higher wages will not solve the problems of deindustrialization, carcerality, automation, and homelessness, although they may make a dent. Few of the care proposals include direct income support, such as a guaranteed income, or housing and food assistance that are equally essential for our capacity to care. This is no accident and has to do with the shifting role of capitalism and care.

The crisis of social reproduction has become a source of profit-making for the private sector, government agencies, nonprofits and individuals, in contrast to Marxist-feminist analyses that see social reproduction as a precondition for capitalist profit. Over the past few decades, programs ostensibly for the “public good” have been repurposed for the private good. State-based care programs that those on the left valiantly fought for are now a source of private wealth accumulation. Businesses have cashed in on a range of state-funded services, from managing foster care to disbursement of welfare funds. YoungWilliams, a private child support service firm, made close to $100 million dollars in profit last year from running state public welfare programs. The nonprofit anti-poverty industry has benefited as well, becoming a billion-dollar industry. Former welfare recipient Theresa Funiciello has written about the diversion of anti-poverty dollars from the poor into a nonprofit social service sector, which she argues has been transformed into a business serving primarily middle-class professionals. Companies, institutions such as universities, and government entities such as prisons offer services for fees that are income-generating, which might include prepared meals, wellness classes, or child care. Similarly, workers hired in private homes facilitate a family-based accumulation of wealth. Families who are experiencing their own care crisis outsource work to people who are locked into low-wage employment because of the shredding of the safety net. The difference between employers’ wages and their employees’ wages is a form of capital accumulation that further widens the class divide.

In short, this suggests that some people’s pain translates into other people’s profit. The current crisis of social reproduction has served as a basis for new wealth, whether through debt servicing or government social service contracts to private companies. As with so many other neoliberal crises, capitalism—or what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism”—finds ways to adapt and thrive and to turn crises into opportunities. This raises the question of whether the care crisis will lead to an economic collapse or will foster a new form of accumulation that depends on that very crisis.

Looked at in this way, neither public nor private care is necessarily in tension with capital accumulation and market logics. The crisis of social reproduction is not an economic paradox that will undermine capitalism. Capitalism has strategically found a way to benefit from care and the care crisis. Service and care work, the labor of social reproduction that nurtures and sustains us, is the engine of the contemporary economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 80 percent of Americans are employed in service work. This includes health care, education, retail, government, financial services, food service, child care and personal service—much of which is highly exploitative and reliant on a low-wage and vulnerable workforce. As it exists right now, the “care” industry has been a bystander or accomplice, or has benefited as public support for the poor has been eviscerated, while those who can have turned to a privatized system that both depends on and widens class divisions. The care industry is part of the problem of economic deepening inequality, rather than serving as an antidote.

Turning to care as a strategy to save capitalism can easily, and perhaps unintentionally, fuel a system where care for some people is prioritized over care for others, where workers who care matter more than those who don’t. When social value and legal protection are offered specifically to workers and immigrants who serve and care for the better-off, what are the implications for people who won’t? We have to be careful that our care infrastructure is not built on the backs of poor and working-class people of color, even if they are well-paid. The allocation of rights because of care work feeds into a dangerous neoliberal logic of valuing people because of productivity. This focus on productivity has the potential to perpetuate anti-Blackness, ableism, and carceral policies that propose containment or elimination of populations that are less productive and therefore disposable.

Proposals for rights, protections, and assistance must be disentangled from care work specifically and work more broadly. If we truly want to develop an agenda that “cares for all,” we should not single out care workers and must offer care for everyone whether they work or not. If the recent move by millions of workers to quit their jobs is any indication, people do not want to bet their future on traditionally defined employment situations. As the labor market is redefined and needs shift, social policy must shift as well. We can take the lead from grassroots care collectives and nonhierarchical movements for radical care to consider how to develop a “care infrastructure” outside a market- and profit-driven system, as many radical care activists and scholars, such as Cara Page, Deva Woodly, Linda Oalican, and Dean Spade, have called for.

We should foster a collective commitment to economic support simply because people are human, rather than relying on arguments that certain people are essential in order to claim justice for them. It is time to move away from care work as a justification for immigration, human worth, or labor rights. Every human being is essential, whether they work or not, and should be valued, respected, and protected, regardless of whether they care.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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