Care Work in America: An Interview with Nancy Folbre
Nancy Folbre is professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A former RSF Visiting Scholar, she is the editor of For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States.
Q: In For Love and Money, you and your contributors often refer to the "distinctive" qualities of care work. What sets this area apart? Why does it challenge conventional intellectual assumptions? What makes it challenging, as a social scientist, to study?
- More Research on Care Work
- RSF Working Group: Care Work in the United States
- RSF Award: Who Cares? Intergenerational Transmission and Determinants of Working in Care Occupations
- RSF Award: Penalties for Paid and Unpaid Care Work
A: The word "care" reveals its own complexity. We use this word both to convey concern for others—as in "I care about you" and to describe specific activities, as in "caring for a sick child."
Care is something we both give and take, connecting us with others. Perhaps because it is a part of our everyday vocabulary, it doesn’t always get the intellectual attention it deserves.
Care work touches on people's greatest vulnerabilities. It often involves first-name, face-to-face, hands-on interaction. Both emotion and moral obligation come into play -- not in place of rational decision-making, but alongside it. People who provide care for others often become attached to them, entangled with them, violating the assumption that we are all wholly separate selves.
Mainstream economics often seems to ignore these distinctive features, treating the decision to care for someone as though it were no different from the decision to buy a Coke rather than a Pepsi. Conventional definitions of skill tend focus on physical or cognitive attainments, devaluing emotional skills such as ability to feel empathy for others. Conventional approaches to motivation focus on extrinsic rewards, ignoring the factors that can strengthen and revitalize intrinsic motivation.
We develop a more interdisciplinary and holistic approach, emphasizing the common features of unpaid and paid care work and the complementarities between them.
Q: The title – For Love and Money – is an important indicator of the volume’s break with previous research in this area. You argue that it’s important to consider unpaid and paid care work in a unified framework, as this approach has important consequences for social and economic policy. What are the strengths of studying the care sector using your approach?
A: The common notion that we inhabit two disparate worlds—one in which we do things for love, and one in which we do things for money—has some very perverse effects. It justifies a distinct lack of respect and remuneration for work that involves love and also justifies the pursuit of naked self-interest where money is concerned. It's a very gendered distinction -- women are to love as men are to money. So in a way, challenging the "two-world" approach goes along with challenging traditional definitions of femininity and masculinity.
Yet it also has remarkably pointed policy implications. Much conservative opposition to public support for family care grows out of the fear that it will displace it or "crowd it out," as in claims that public child care would undermine the family or that public long-term care provision would discourage adults from caring for their own aging parents. In fact, public support for care provision represents a vital form of social insurance that helps spread costs and risks and relieve stress on individual families. It complements and strengthens family responsibility.
Q: Even though the provision of care has shifted from the family – mostly women – to a more complicated mix of market, family, and state, women still continue to do the most care work, both paid and unpaid. Do you have a sense of why this is still the case? How much weight would you give to societal norms as opposed to, say, a failure in public policy or other factors?
A: I think that societal norms and public policies are mutually reinforcing. That's why they are both so difficult yet so susceptible to change. It seems pretty clear that women's entrance into paid employment has given them increased cultural and political bargaining power. We've seen tremendous changes in gender roles over the last century, especially the last fifty years. Yet we've also learned that it is much easier for women to gain permission to enact masculine roles than to persuade men to help shoulder feminine responsibilities. Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised: male roles offer more immediate and more easily measured benefits than female roles do.
Class and racial/ethnic differences also come into play. For reasons that social scientists don't fully understand, these forms of social inequality tend to have a differential effect on men and women and a disruptive effect on family commitments among those experiencing the greatest economic stress. Also, inequality undermines willingness to pool the costs and risks of dependent care through social insurance, leaving low-income women in a particularly vulnerable position.
Q: In your chapter on valuing care, you argue that a range of care costs – both paid and unpaid – are often "invisible." We don’t fully account for the cost of the time and effort it takes to raise a child, for example. What kind of distortions does this failure produce?
A: We mismeasure economic well-being, productivity, sustainability, and probably just about everything else. We've become obsessed with a particular scorecard—money income—that is increasingly disconnected from the things we care about the most. Consider the analogy with environmental issues. We don't calculate the devaluation of our economic environment resulting from climate change, so its effects seem remote, intangible, even speculative. Likewise, we don't calculate the waste of human capital when a child dies prematurely or a young adult flunks out of school or is sent to prison -- we treat this as unfortunate social events, but they are also economic losses.
Q: Since it is election season, I wanted to end on a policy note – Do you think that policies that affect care provision get enough attention? Are there promising legislative proposals that you follow or endorse?
A: No, this year's presidential campaign is pretty much a wasteland. Anxiety about the deficit, and fear that entitlements are out of control has squelched public discussion of important initiatives such as early childhood education, paid family leaves and paid sick leaves from work. State initiatives in these areas have been weakened by fiscal crisis. Further, the current Republican emphasis on cutting discretionary spending and weakening the Medicaid system threatens to undermine important programs for children, adults with disabilities, and elderly in need of long-term care.
Yet there is also a constituency for a comprehensive care policy. Parents need help balancing the demands of paid employment and child care. Many people worry about the well-being of their aging parents and their own future vulnerability. People coping with disabilities—their own, or those of family members—have a deep appreciation of the need for social insurance.
Our book calls attention to significant disparities in public support for care, based on both geography and income. It also emphasizes the social and economic payoff to investments in care provision. We believe that our research can help build a case for expanding policies such as paid parental leave from work, paid sick leave, caregiver credits for Social Security, and home and community-based assistance for people who need long-term care.
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