The concept of withholding women’s labor as leverage to gain social change has since been applied elsewhere. For instance, in 2016, after the Polish government proposed a near-total ban on abortion, more than 100,000 people, mostly women, stopped their normal activities to demonstrate against the ban in the streets. As a result, the Polish Parliament rejected the provision. (When a revised ban ultimately went into effect this past January, the country once again saw massive street demonstrations led by women.)
If care work makes the economy possible, and its absence makes the economy impossible, what is it if not infrastructure? Most people, however, remain stubbornly opposed to the idea. As a feminized form of work, care work has been mythologized as something women do “naturally,” or sentimentalized as a labor of love. Indeed, American culture is still committed to the notion that women are inherently skilled at and inclined toward spending their time with children; we still understand the home as a refuge from the economy, not as a site of production.
Last week, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York tweeted, “Paid leave is infrastructure. Child care is infrastructure. Caregiving is infrastructure.” Jarome Bell, a Republican congressional candidate from Virginia, was thrown. “Taking care of your own kids is infrastructure,” he replied. He meant this ironically; to him, it sounded absurd. Brian Riedl, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, summed up the sentimental attachment to child care and other caregiving with his own sardonic assessment: “Cute puppies are infrastructure. The smile on a child’s face is infrastructure. A wave from a pretty girl is infrastructure.” Many take comfort in seeing this type of labor not as effort, but as love; not as work, but as a role.
Catherine S. Ramirez and Glenn Kramon: The U.S. must do more to care for its caregivers
For some people, the rationale for excluding care work is more pragmatic. They argue that infrastructure should refer only to onetime expenditures, and that because care work is a recurring expense, it shouldn’t count. But the idea of onetime spending doesn’t apply to roads and bridges, either. Left untended, highways form potholes, and bridges begin to buckle. The failure to continually allocate funds for the maintenance of these concrete structures is partly why they have fallen into such disrepair.
A similar failure of investment has also eroded America’s care infrastructure. Nurses, home health aids, child-care providers, and other waged workers in the care economy are disproportionately women of color, and they’re carrying a massive amount of responsibility for the nation’s economic health with shockingly little of the commensurate compensation or respect.
The paid-care workforce has long been under great stress. The median salary of a child-care worker is $25,510. The median salary for a home health aide is even lower, at $17,200. In the past year, moreover, the paid-care economy has been devastated by the pandemic, leading many workers outside that sector—women, primarily—to leave the labor force because they cannot access the family support that they need.
And yet, at this crucial moment, care workers are being subjected to a semantic debate that will determine the dignity, legitimacy, and safety of their labor. The result is not only a practical crisis of care work in America, but also a moral one.