How Domestic Labor Became Infrastructure

Care work is just as essential as roads and bridges.

An illustration of a highway and a Red Cross
Getty / The Atlantic

About the author: Moira Donegan is working on a book about sexual harassment.

Since the Biden administration released its infrastructure proposal, a semantic debate has arisen around a specific provision: the $400 billion in spending for at-home care for the elderly and disabled. Many Republicans and some Democrats have bristled that such spending—along with more robust family-leave mandates and investments in child-care access that are expected in a second package—is not “infrastructure.” Infrastructure, they argue, consists only of the physical things that make the American economy run: roads and bridges built by men in hard hats, which nearly all politicians in Washington agree require more investment and are usually prefaced with the adjective crumbling.

The conceptualization of visiting nurses as infrastructure—definitionally, the basic physical and organizational structures needed for the operation of a society—has struck some as cynical, even offensive—an attempt to use a politically popular label to smuggle through a much broader agenda. Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee tweeted a graphic that featured the $400 billion figure in an ugly black-and-yellow scheme, set against an ominously blurry legislative document. “President Biden’s proposal is about anything but infrastructure.” Even some prominent allies of the president, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, stopped short of defending care work as infrastructure. “There’s this semantic debate that’s opening up,” Buttigieg said on MSNBC. “To me it’s a little bit besides the point … If it’s a good policy, vote for it and call it whatever you like.”

But the inclusion of care work under the infrastructure umbrella is more than just semantic sleight of hand. Rather, it’s the realization of an argument that feminists have been making for decades: that traditionally feminized caretaking or “reproductive” labor—the child care, elder care, cooking, cleaning, shopping, and domestic logistics that usually women do, often for low pay in the homes of others or for no pay at all in their own homes—is just as essential to the functioning of the economy as roads and bridges are. Domestic labor has to get done for any other work to get done.

Once marginal, the idea that care work is infrastructure has been embraced by feminists across the political spectrum. The Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici advanced the notion of care work as essential to the productive-labor economy in 1972, when she founded Wages for Housework, an organization that called for the state to pay for domestic work. Less radical feminist thinkers have also accepted the understanding of care work and housework as essential economic functions, excluded from traditional concepts of infrastructure not because they do not meet the definition but because the use of term has been warped by biased perceptions of value. The New Zealander economist Marilyn Waring made this claim in her 1987 book, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth, which argued that GDP was a poor measure of national economic health because it ignored women’s “nonproductive” care work.

Waring’s arguments were put into practice on October 24, 1975, when nearly 90 percent of Icelandic women abandoned their paid jobs and child-care and elder-care duties, as well as their housework, for a day to participate in mass street demonstrations. The goal was to highlight the importance of all women’s work—formal and informal, paid and unpaid—and to demand equal wages, women in leadership, and more support for mothers. The women’s strike was organized in part by the socialist feminist group Redstockings, but it was branded with the relatively nonconfrontational language of a “women’s day off.” Still, the withdrawal of women’s labor from the office, shop, and home had immediate effects. Banks, stores, factories, offices, schools, and nurseries all had to close. Men were left scrambling, unsure of how to manage their children. Many men called out sick to spend the day taking care of their kids, which caused more shutdowns. Others brought their kids to work, where the children proved distracting. Chaos abounded; even for the men who managed to get to work, very little work got done. Iceland outlawed gender discrimination the following year. Five years later, the country elected Vigdís Finnbogadóttir as president—the first time a woman was elected as a head of state anywhere in the world.

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.

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.