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Big ideas are flourishing these days—the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, sectoral bargaining, Universal Basic Income, prison abolition. This makes it all the more noteworthy when major policy areas are relatively quiet. One example is child care, despite Elizabeth Warren having started there in her “I have a plan for that” strategy.
What’s lacking is not merely depth of attention but also breadth of imagination. In particular, child care is being viewed almost entirely through the lens of labor market policy. Policy initiatives such as Warren’s focus first on enabling parents to flourish in paid work through access to affordable, quality care. Secondarily, they strive to ensure that the resulting caregiving jobs are themselves well-paid, protected, and respected. These important commitments especially advance the interests of women workers, particularly working class women of color overrepresented on both sides of this needing care/providing care ledger. The dual emphasis undermines both the family wage system’s gendered breadwinner/caretaker division of labor centered on married, middle-class white women and its incorporation of women of color into paid work, including specifically domestic work for white families, that lay outside the structures of labor citizenship designed for white, male breadwinners.
Nonetheless, focusing on universalizing access to better paid work submerges two other longstanding elements of critical feminist analysis of care work. These are particularly pertinent to LPE conversations about the political-economic centrality of markets. First, feminist accounts of social reproduction have long highlighted the extensive, essential, but systematically devalued or outright ignored work performed outside conventional labor markets in families and communities. This includes especially direct care work and housework or other household production, but also broader forms of civic participation often denoted “volunteering.” Second, attaching economic resources to nonmarket social reproductive labor starts to loosen paid work’s iron grip on household income more generally. That grip creates a legitimated dependency on labor markets that undergirds power relations both between labor and capital and, within families, between market “breadwinners” and those more conventionally labelled “dependents.” Valuing care thus could facilitate both reimagining work and decentering markets.
None of today’s leading child care proposals conceptualize or institutionalize support for care in this broader fashion. One obvious mechanism for doing so would be to structure publicly supported child care to give parents control over how care was provided. Options would span child care centers, family child care providers, informal care by family, friends or neighbors, or even by parents themselves, as proposed by the People’s Policy Project. This would carry forward the old demand from Johnnie Tillmon, a leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, to “start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing, childraising and house-keeping,” whether inside or outside the market, to enable what Dorothy Roberts calls meaningful “economic freedom.”
Such an approach would center care as a basic household need, not one that magically disappears—and with it claims to public support—when a parent exits the labor market. Doing so would also underline the connection between the devaluation of paid care workers—something being so effectively countered with Domestic Workers Bills of Rights and other domestic worker-led initiatives—and the devaluation of unpaid family caregivers, including the opposition between private home space and public work space.
Instead, that connection risks being severed when reforms rely on an upgrading strategy tethered to “quality” defined in terms of professional credentialing and extensively regulated facilities, as the Warren plan emphasizes more so than some. Although well motivated, this may not fully capture the dimensions or determinants of quality that, as reflected in research on home-based child care providers, many parents value most, especially for the youngest children. Taken literally, it could imply that most parents are unqualified to care for their own children in their own homes.
Ironically, though, conventionally ambitious family policy packages today typically also support parental care in the form of paid family leave for the first three to six months of an infant’s life; this yields a sharp discontinuity with subsequently privileging professionalized, center-based care. Because care policy is subordinated to labor market participation and family leave framed as encouraging return to paid work, this form of support for parental caregiving is tied to having a job from which to take leave; parents without recent earnings get nothing.
Building on this core of support for parental caregiving, an approach known as At-Home Infant Care (AHIC) briefly gained traction in the early 2000s. AHIC would have focused directly on care provision and essentially allowed low-income parents access either to in-kind subsidized third-party care or to cash income while they provide infant care themselves, like a parent on family leave but without a labor force attachment requirement. Although AHIC had significant limitations, it potentially pushed back against the denigration of caregiving by low-income parents, especially Black mothers, in the context of employment-based welfare reform. This could have provided a starting point for a more expansive rethinking of child care policy, something Hillary Clinton hinted at in her 2008 (but not 2016) presidential campaign child care proposal. But while plausible policy has moved sharply to the left since 2008 in other domains, if anything the opposite has happened with the structure of child care policy, even though support for more funding continues to build.
Strikingly, public policy around familial care work has moved in the opposite direction with regard to long-term care or personal assistance for elderly people or those with disabilities, as opposed to child care. There, the consistent push, reflected in current Medicare-for-All proposals and driven by the disability rights movement, has been away from structures that lock in more institutionalized forms of care and toward facilitating home- or community-based care. The associated emphasis on consumer-directed care arrangements includes an ability to pay family, friends, or neighbors for care that might otherwise have been provided unpaid. The labor movement has experimented successfully with work and bargaining structures that support a dispersed, home-based workforce, though these have been undermined by the Supreme Court’s general assault on public sector unions. A particularly expansive program supporting family caregiving for veterans with disabilities also has taken root and grown. Similarly, proposals for refundable tax credits for caregivers have become standard fare, but typically limited to care for adult family members, not children.
The focus on long-term care for adults has, however, shown some limited potential to open a roundabout path to recognition and valuation of child care, too. For instance, Pete Buttigieg’s recently announced long-term care plan includes an element that provides credit toward Social Security benefits for full-time unpaid family caregiving. Although the context is care for people with disabilities and elders, the Social Security proposal includes child care, too. Warren’s Social Security proposal similarly (but with a lower hours threshold) rhetorically anchors credits for “family caregivers” in care for adults, yet also offers credit for child caregiving. Warren even echoes feminist demands to “recognize caregiving for the valuable work it is.”
The one mainstream proposal, fairly limited and obscure though it remains, that directly integrates nonmarket child care into claims on current income is Cory Booker’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) expansion modeled on the “Cost of Living Refund” plan. Currently, the EITC’s refundable tax credit to low-income households is conditioned on having labor market earnings; that means a single parent providing full-time care receives nothing, even though a couple with a full-time caregiver can receive the maximum credit based on the other’s earnings. Booker’s proposal would expand the EITC’s concept of “work” to include family caregivers—whether of children or adults—and also full-time students. Nonetheless, the caregiving aspect is submerged below an emphasis on raising the value of the credit and delinking it from having children in the household, though the caregiving aspect is central to an endorsement by Ai-jen Poo’s Caring Across Generations campaign.
These footnotes and epicycles aside, a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the prominent big idea with a directly articulated connection to social reproduction and demarketization. Feminist theorists have long identified a UBI as a way to counteract the devaluation of unpaid caregiving and other nonmarket work, and decenter work more generally. And Andrew Yang’s platform does praise UBI for “provid[ing] a supplementary income for those interested in labor that isn’t supported by the market,” although this represents a side note relative to his emphasis on technological unemployment,
Despite the benefits this income floor would provide, a UBI’s universal, unconditional structures also means it does nothing to affirmatively integrate caregiving into the social citizenship-conferring category of work more generally. It makes no change to the relative status of caregivers, continuing to treat them like the proverbial surfer (who also gets UBI) and unlike market workers (who get UBI, earnings, and child-care assistance).
Nonetheless, a UBI’s subsistence support for family caregivers (and everyone) has drawn criticism from feminists who see universal labor market participation as the exclusive viable route to gender equality. A UBI, by contrast, may make more economically viable a traditional gender division of labor that combines a man’s breadwinning and a woman’s caregiving. This concern arises even more sharply when claims on resources are specifically grounded in caregiving, as would be the case with child-care support that could provide an income source for parental caregivers.
This objection is well worth taking seriously, but several considerations may blunt its power. Without attempting a comprehensive treatment, I note a few counters that highlight the intertwined politics of class, sexuality, and race that run throughout care work debates. First, it is puzzling that the gender division of labor objection has so much less prominence and force in the context of cash payments or supports for adult long-term care, which is comparably gendered. This implies that an important political distinction remains between child care and care for adults, a distinction that suggests how much the specter of welfare politics—and specifically its denigration of childbearing and caregiving by low-income single mothers of color—continues to haunt this field.
Second, the feared gender division of labor is specific to cross-gender two-parent households. Both single parent (typically mother) and same-gender two-parent households present different issues. Moreover, overcoming a within-household division of labor by prioritizing paid third-party care does little to alter the broader social division of labor. Paid providers are overwhelmingly women, and, being disproportionately women of color, a racial division is intensified, too.
Of course, the care work employment upgrading strategy noted above addresses this division of labor by ensuring that paid caregiving is a good job. To succeed, such upgrading must blunt the harms of race/gender occupational segregation or cause segregation to dissipate. But if such an ambitious transformation of labor markets is possible, then similar policy creativity and political will might transform the practices, protections, and meanings of nonmarket care work, too, likewise blunting the division of labor objection. That is a challenge that simply is not being taken up in any systematic fashion, whether via integration with a broader agenda centering care, work, or economic inequality. Our palette of big ideas is impoverished as a result.