In A Day Without Care in Jacobin Magazine, labor journalist Sarah Jaffe writes about the blossoming labor movement for caring work, discussing recent strikes in retail and education. Jaffe also gives us some background on the history for better working conditions, pay and hours for work traditionally done by women. The care work that Jaffe examines is also known as caring labor in the feminist economics literature, and the labor movement and economic theory behind this are intertwined.
Feminist economics defines caring labor as interactive service work that improves the capabilities of people who are recipients of caring services. Furthermore, this work is often done for those who have the least ability to pay for it – like childcare, K-12 education, home healthcare, eldercare, etc. Coincidentally it is work that is primarily done by women. This work is often associated with lower pay given “human capital” (productive ability as measured by education, experience, age, job tenure).
In their paper “For Love or Money – or Both?” feminist economists Nancy Folbre and Julie Nelson draw attention to the dual meaning of care. Caring can be physical action like changing a diaper, but it is also an emotion. Because caring labor is just that, caring, the commitment for workers to care is elicited. This contributes to a pay penalty for care work because the workers tend to be less pay sensitive. This means that they act as if they are less motivated by money than other non-caring workers might. They are hesitant to withdraw their work from those who need it the most even under poor working conditions and low pay.
It is also hard to measure how much they contribute to the economy in traditional ways, since they are not generating a profit for a capitalist. But it is clear that their work is valuable based on how much we expect it to take place. We would never think that our children shouldn’t be educated and our elderly shouldn’t live in dignity. But what this has often meant is that we don’t think it should be paid for, or at least not well paid. And it is that much easier to promote the rhetoric that caring work should be done for love, and not money, when it is work done by women whose identities are already framed within patriarchal structures of value.
It’s for these reasons that caring labor faces particular challenges in the labor movement, as Jaffe discusses, and in economic theory. As Folbre and Nelson point out in their paper, work can be (and often is) done for love and for money. The dualism of self-interest versus altruism and money versus love needs to be overcome, both in public dialogue about the caring labor movement and in economics theory and research. Jaffe calls for a renewed labor movement, with attention to hours of work, to change how we view what work is, who does it, and for how much. Economics that discusses new ways to understand how this work is valued and what determines the wages of caring workers will help support this and guide ways to re-imagine caring labor.